Thinking about the unthinkable, Part Four

I don’t know who will win today’s election in Massachusetts, but there are two things I’m confident of. First, if Brown wins, the Democrats will claim that the result is the product of “local considerations” and, in particular, a poor candidate. Second, this claim will be misleading at best.
When Bob McDonnell trounced Creigh Deeds in Virginia, I argued that his victory was largely the result of local conditions and was not, for the most part, a referendum on President Obama or the national Democrats. So I hope I can credibly claim to be unbiased when it comes to these matters.
But to suggest that the Massachusetts race isn’t national in character doesn’t pass the straight face test. First, unlike the Virginia race, this one is for U.S. Senator. All races for the Senate — and especially those that do not involve an incumbent who has been delivering goodies to the state — should be presumed to be about the nation’s course, not that of a state or locality. Second, this race will determine whether the Democrats have a filibuster proof majority in the Senate. With this much at stake, how could the race not be, in large part, a referendum on whether Democratic uber-control is desirable?
Third, the fate of Obamacare may very well depend on the outcome of this election. Obamacare would transform a huge portion of our economy and the most important portion — the one that pertains directly to the health, and in some cases the life or death, of the electorate. This issue can hardly be a matter of indifference to Massachusetts voters.
Finally, the polls reflect the national character of the race. Obama has fallen from winner in Massachusetts by 26 points to break-even approval ratings in the state. And Brown’s rise coincides with a serious decline in the popularity of Obamacare. One could recreate with reasonable precision the Coakley-Brown split in the polls by reference solely to “national” metrics.
I don’t mean to deny that Coakley is a relatively poor candidate and that Brown is an excellent one. If Brown wins narrowly, the Democrats will have a strong argument that that the attributes of the candidates were decisive in his victory (in very close races, lots of things are decisive). But they won’t be able plausibly to explain how a Massachusetts Republican got within shouting distance of winning a Senate seat to begin with in such a Blue state.
It’s useful in this regard to think of the Virginia Senate race in 2006. The incumbent, George Allen, lost by a very small margin. Given the narrowness of Jim Webb’s victory it seemed probable that Allen’s mother-of-all-gaffes — the macaca insult — was decisive. Yet it would have been a mistake to suppose that the election was not closely related to the strong national trend that was running against Republicans. For in the absence of that trend, Virginia voters would not have seriously considered voting out a popular politician with a lengthy track record for one misguided comment.
Similarly, in the absence of the anti-Democrat trend, folks in Massachusetts wouldn’t be very bothered by Coakley’s lack of knowledge about the Red Sox. This would be the kind of thing Democrats could laugh off, as Obama did so consistently, as a “diversion from the real issues facing our country.”
Allen’s narrow defeat was followed in 2008 by Barack Obama’s decisive victory in Virginia. This confirmed that there was much more than the “macaca” comment at work in 2006.
I wouldn’t expect Obama to lose Massachusetts in 2012. But a Brown victory, or even a reasonably close defeat, would likely presage a very good 2010 for Republicans. Attempts to brand this most national of Senate races “local” should be viewed as a pathetic attempt to deny the existence of a steamroller coming down the street.

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