Last week's news out of Massachusetts surprised even me. Voters in the Bay State did the (apparently) unthinkable, electing a Republican to the U.S. Senate for the first time since 1972. To make this upset even more astonishing, this was the Senate seat previously held by Ted Kennedy for nearly 47 years.* Prior to that, big brother Jack had held the seat for eight years. No small wonder that the office became known as "the Kennedy seat."
But the Kennedy brothers' 55 years, put in perspective, is still no big deal. Congressman John Dingell, Jr. has been serving the 15th District of Michigan for over 54 years. He took office on the death of his father, John Sr., who served for 22 years. Pundits, however, do not wax eloquent on 77 years of "the Dingell Dynasty," nor have they (to my knowledge) branded the 15th District as "the Dingell Seat."
Still and all -- you'd think that after all this time, the people of Massachusetts would be entitled to let another person -- another party -- have a ride on the tire swing. And so, with no Kennedy option** for the first time in several generations, they did just that.
And the nation howled.
I saw it first on Facebook as the election returns came in: "Massachusetts, you suck." "I hate [Massachusetts] Republicans." "Massholes."
This from people who don't even live in the state, as though Scott Brown (the new Senator-elect) had just stuck his thumb in their collective eye, personally.
From the other side of the aisle, the raucous caucus echoed back: "Happy anniversary to the 'Chosen One.' I guess you got an early present from Massachusetts. Be looking for the rest in November." And with at least a modicum of humor: "Filibuster diligently."
I went to bed that night not caring a whit about Scott Brown, or Martha Coakley, or Barack Obama. Because they're not the (immediate) problem. Instead I lay there, staring up at the ceiling fan, wishing for a way to collectively bitchslap the whole whining, gloating lot of you.
Why? Because you're getting distracted.
The Massachusetts special election couldn't have come at a better time. It played third-fiddle at best against the drama of two ongoing global crises: the human tragedy of the Haitian earthquake and its aftermath, and the expulsion of Conan O'Brien.
Sure, there were talking heads who were aghast that Massachusetts voters put a Republican in Ted's chair. Yes, the analysts and several senators and congressmen started writing the obituary for health care reform. But the truth is, Brown had been leading in the polls for awhile before election night, and most outlets seemed to predict at least (if you'll pardon the pun) a conservative margin of victory. And health care reform has been a straw man proposal at best; even many Democrats were accepting the most recent iteration of this bill only begrudgingly. Some even seem relieved at being able to call health care reform "dead", as though the rigor of actually considering practical legislation was too mentally exhausting.
Look and listen past that; it's all static.
During the rest of last week, unemployment claims surged to their highest level in two months. The Dow, which had been managing a steady climb for weeks, dropped 600 points. The banking system, so eager to play along with the Obama adminstration when they were teetering on the brink of collapse, dug in its heels against the President's demanded reforms.
Suddenly, there's a new populism. AGAIN. Congress and the President have remembered there are voters -- excuse me, "people" -- out here.
On Capitol Hill, my own senator, Claire McCaskill, unabashedly admitted Congress' new priority: "If there's anybody in this building that doesn't tell you they're more worried about elections today, you should absolutely slap them."
"[Voter anger] is a lot of what we heard in Iowa. It was a lot of what we heard in the general election. It was a lot of what, quite frankly, he heard as U.S. senator. I think the president would tell you it's an important moment for us to come together and work on our problems," said Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.
At the same time, Senator-elect Brown sang a tired refrain: "Maybe there's a new breed of Republican coming to Washington. Maybe people will finally look at somebody who's not beholden to the special interests of the party, and who will look to just to solve problems."
Ah, yes. "Mr. Brown Goes to Washington." Earnest populist vows change. Wasn't that last year's message?
Let me spare you the rhetoric and analysis of Wednesday night's State of the Union address. It boils down to a line I find myself quoting more and more often: "All of this has happened before. All of this will happen again."
Change is not something that politicians are good at, no matter how empathetic they may be portrayed by their campaign managers, or how skilled they may be in their speechmaking. Change is anathema to politicians. That's why they hold their seats for 47 years, or 77 years. Why would anyone expect that to be different in the wake of the election of one senator, regardless of party affiliation?
The post-election reactions of a smattering of Facebook friends is a microcosm of a divided America. We revel in our polarization. Red states against blue states. "Republican" and "Democrat" are epithets, spat out on talk radio and blogs with the vitriol once reserved for "faggot" and "nigger."
Tell me how that's progress.
Tell me how that's going to change anything.
*Ted would have succeeded JFK in the Senate in 1961, but he was too young. He had to have a family friend keep the seat warm until he was old enough. But no one harbored any illusion that it was anyone's seat but Teddy's.
**A guy named Joseph L. Kennedy ran as an independent, but he is no relation to "the" Kennedys.
If the media is the eye on the world, Russ Carr is the finger in that eye. Tune in each month to see him dispersing the smoke and smashing the mirrors of modern mass communication. The world lost Russ on 2/7/12, but he lives on.
ABOUT RUSS CARR
more about russ carr
IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
1.25.10 @ 10:02a
Couldn't agree more. I was disheartened by the proposed bills even before the Assachusetts (oops, typo!) vote. It had been bargained into a pile of crap. Nixon's proposed reform was more progressive. I have given up on any meaningful health care reform in my lifetime.
What I find most amazing is that Massachusetts overwhelmingly supports their own universal health care upon which Obama's plan was based. Wish someone could explain that one. They're the only state with near-universal coverage (95%+).
But your column is about divisiveness and a floundering government. Sad, isn't it? Nice column.
candy green gustavson
1.25.10 @ 10:07a
It is a good column. Well-written and well-stated. Terrible when reform for the nation has to boil down to "what's in it for me?" Massachusetts has a history of leading--public education and health care. Perhaps we will have to all become more involved in the states of our United States?
That's a question.
michelle von euw
1.25.10 @ 3:56p
Nicely handled. A few things the national pundits haven't mentioned (or haven't mentioned much):
-For all the Blue State talk, up until recently, MA had a stretch of three consecutive Republican governors.
-"Democrat" in MA doesn't mean the same as "Democrat" elsewhere. For instance, I grew up with several pro-life, fiscally conservative, and/or socially right-wing elected officials who called themselves Democrats.
-My home state has a terrible track record when it comes to electing women. I don't know why, but it's a big problem.
Coakley, from what I've heard, didn't run a very impressive campaign, which some people saw as disrespectful to Brown. Brown also kicked butt when it came to using social media to get out his message. Maybe I'm jaded, but I think these had a lot more to do with it than any real issues.
1.25.10 @ 9:44p
Great column, Russ. I, too, have listened to the whining of friends and other registered voters (I mean "citizens") all over facebook and elsewhere. Luckily, I don't own a TV, so I haven't had to watch the nonsense surrounding the "outrage" over this election unfold via nightly news. This country elected a black president just over a year ago when no one thought it was possible. But as we know with American politics, ANYTHING is possible.
One of the beauties of our democracy is the fact that we do have 3 political parties in this nation (whoops, did I just add Independents into that mix, I forgot, they don't usually hold any majority positions anywhere in the Congress or Senate). As a Democrat in a mostly Republican state, I find it refreshing that a state such as Massachussetts long run by Democrats has elected a Republican for this seat. Yes, I may piss off several of my Democrat friends by saying this, but this country needs balance. Doubtful having a certain number of Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate will provide such a balance, but I'm an optimist (sometimes), especially when there aren't term limits on such positions (how can this be?).
What disheartens me about our political system is that too many people get caught up in petty labels like Democrat and Republican, which mean far different things than the original Founding Fathers intended. Our political leaders often play games, name call, and use attack ads instead of getting out and meeting the people, talking issues, taking notes, and getting some work done to ensure that our middle class doesn't die out in the next 25 years. Perhaps one day soon "We the People" will run this country we love instead of special interest groups all too often persuaded by corporate greed. Until then, good for you, Massachusetts for giving someone different an opportunity to be a leader for your state. And thank you, Russ for providing such thoughtful insight into this topic.
1.25.10 @ 11:46p
re: Facebook vitriol -- Hell hath no fury like liberals scorned.
In fairness, however, I've visited some conservative blogs (sounds like trogs, as in troglodytes) where the same uncivil discourse goes on. When will we ever learn that the right of free speech entails freedom to speak rightly?
So, it's heartening to read the prior posts to this piece: people who think before, during, and perhaps after writing (before they press "post").
"Trust not in princes; they are but mortal."
1.25.10 @ 11:54p
Thanks to all of you for your comments... now I only have another 300 million or so of you to reach. As I did research for this column, I was astounded at how one news source after another failed to take notice of the bigger issues at stake: the polarization of the electorate and the atrophy of the federal government.
Both parties are in extreme disarray, and it's only getting worse. The Democrats should have at least another two years of utter bliss after the Obama election, but the abandonment of the middle class in favor of throwing billions to Wall Street and Detroit first, followed by the empty promise of Health Care Reform, has turned public opinion in scarcely a year. Republicans still can't escape the shadow of President Bush, who -- while hardly a brilliant leader -- had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the right time. He, and by extension, the GOP, have become the scapegoats for the economic mess we're in, when in fairness it would likely have happened no matter who was in the White House.
With the reasonable people of either party left stumbling without clear and effective leadership, it's left to the extremists on either side to set the tone, and so they have. What's scary is the potential now for those more orthodox elements to push their agendas, to influence voters and to consolidate power.
President Obama and the Congress have ten months left in which to act decisively to effect real "change" to the status quo. That's going to be difficult (if not impossible) with every Senator and Representative up for re-election focused more on the delicate task of maintaining their consituency. But if they don't, it's going to send an increasingly polarized America to the polls in November, virtually assuring two years of partisan fingerpointing and policy deadlock. Can the nation afford to spend the last two years of the Obama administration flailing in a political tar pit?
1.26.10 @ 6:40a
"Real 'change'" will come about when "we, the people," change (e.g., our habits of energy consumption).
"Real 'change'" will come about when we abandon the notion that economic growth can be ineluctable--it can be so, vestigially, only if we spend everything we have and then some, often a lot, of what we don't. To some extent, the American people woke up to this when they didn't spend their tax "rebate" checks last year, at least not for unnecessary things--I think I can account for ours: we had our water heater replaced just after Christmas.
"Real 'change'" will come about when we abandon the notion that the Government is responsible not simply to guarantee opportunity or access, but also to ensure results. Health care, for example, is not a right. Access to health care, that is, availability of qualified personnel and quality facilities, I think, can be construed as belonging to the "social infrastructure," as is access to education. The government's authorization of health savings and flex-spending accounts (does anyone remember "Christmas Clubs" at banks?) offers worthwhile and, in my view, appropriate tax advantages. Obtaining insurance must not be infringed on the basis of "race" or gender, but no one is entitled to have it given to them, which ineluctably means someone else must fund it.
I'll borrow Russ's "earnest populist" line. "Real 'change'" will come about when we become "earnest populists." We cannot simply "hire" them (by election).
1.26.10 @ 3:19p
Found the answer to my question (above) in the NY Times today. It claims that Brown didn't run on "we don't need universal health care", but on "we already have it in Massachusetts, so why pay for someone else's?".
At least self-interest is understandable.
1.26.10 @ 8:40p
Conan got robbed. Sure he got $38 million, but I got the feeling he would've foregone the money if he could've remained host of the Tonight Show. As for Brown, I think he's done wonders for the way future generations will look at former centerfold models.
1.29.10 @ 7:30a
You really, really, should have submitted this as an op-ed piece somewhere. Well done.
2.1.10 @ 9:46a
It's like taking an aspirin for cancer. Our Federal gov't has some core problems that our founders warned us about, or maybe more accurately, prophesied about. Until we start working on those things, everything else is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. In a lot of ways it is like a lawn tractor that you start up, put in first gear and walk away. If there's not somebody driving, making sure it stays true to its mission, it will run through the daisies and over the cat. Even more so, if your neighbor who has some ideas that don't align with proper lawn care, or worse, outright hates you hops in the seat, things could be much worse. We've drifted--although at this point "drifted" doesn't quite do it justice. What's happening now is a course correction. My concern is that shifts and course corrections occur naturally, and that once again the momentum will be lost before we reach the place we need to be, or the momentum will be hijacked and lead us full speed over the side of a cliff. That's why I've taken it upon myself to write many, many letters to Obama, Webb, Warner and Connolly. Although I have yet to receive a personal response (despite being very inventive with some of what I've mailed them... I'm sure it ended up with some intern's grocery list on the back) I have noticed a shift in mood and what's being discussed by Webb and Warner. Obama? Well, there's not much hope there... as Pee-Wee Herman used to say, "nothing under there, and nothing under there." Lots of good intentions there, but we all know where that can lead you, especially if you continually refuse to throw out your anchor. And as for Connolly, I'm actually going to try very hard to see him defeated this November.
Good article, Russ. Glad to see I'm not the only one making a deliberate effort to not get distracted.