Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Lessons from the Scott Brown mess

I’ve been trying to stay away from the political stuff, but Scott Brown’s stunning upset victory in Massachusetts is making my pundit zone itch.

Most of the people reading this already know where I stand on the issues, but there’s nothing particularly interesting about my opinions.

What’s interesting to me is how this Senate race has stunned Washington and sent pundits on both sides scrambling to make sense of it.

I think this race reveals something deep and important about our national character, but nobody has quite figured out what that something is.

Let’s break it down:

REPUBLICAN SPIN: This vote was a national referendum on Obama’s presidency. Voters rejected deficits, voters rejected health care, voters rejected big government and after just one year of empty promises, they have firmly rejected Obama. Voters want someone to fix the economy and give them their jobs back.

DEMOCRAT SPIN: Coakley was a lackluster candidate who made some terrible mistakes. Scott Brown ran a great campaign with the entire force of the RNC behind him. Democrats didn’t take the race seriously, so the flood of GOP money and GOP talent overwhelmed them. Republicans treated this like a national election; Democrats took it for granted, so the Republicans won. Wacky independent voters (blithely dismissed as “teabaggers”) are upset about the economy and the Democrats stayed home to punish Obama for not being liberal enough.

REPUBLICAN CONCLUSIONS: We’ve got ’em on the ropes. Health care is dead. Big government is dead. Obama’s honeymoon is over and 2010 is gonna look like 1994. All those crazy independents were actually STEALTH REPUBLICANS and if the Dems don’t shut down everything and do what we say, the people are gonna rise up and give us our majority back!

I even heard one Republican whackjob say that Brown’s election meant that Massachusetts voters were PRO-TORTURE! He called it “enhanced interrogation.” Yeah, and crashing into a telephone poll is “enhanced parking.”

DEMOCRAT CONCLUSIONS: Full speed ahead! We’ve only got 59 seats but guess what, that’s STILL A MAJORITY! Let’s push through everything we want and go down fighting! Shove health care down their throats and make them love us! Stop all this wussy compromise and bet-hedging crap and WIN SOMETHING! Make the Republicans filibuster and let the American people see them holding up health care. Obama’s flailing because he lost his base. Stick to your guns and become the guy we elected! Democrats are losing elections because they’re timid and afraid! But we have the power! Let’s use it and put some points on the board!

My raw material for all this comes from comparing the Dennis Miller and Rachel Maddow podcasts today.

Miller is smarter than the average Republican and Maddow is smarter than the average Democrat. Which is just my shorthand way of saying they are both willing to nod in the direction of reality, even when they’re charged up and emotional.

The most amusing thing between them? They both agree on Maddow’s proposed course of action. Maddow wants the Democrats to charge full speed ahead and so does Miller. He thinks Americans are terrified of health care legislation and will run the Democrats out of town on a rail if they push it through. Thus, he wants them to try it, almost as badly as Maddow does.

The really interesting thing? Senate Democrats are buying into the Republican spin. This election scared the hell out of them. And I confess, anything that puts the fear of God into an American politician has got to be a good thing.

Do you know how long it’s been since we’ve seen a politician AFRAID of his constituents, genuinely afraid of losing power because of something they did? It’s a lovely thing, and I wish we could see it more often.

The Democrats are so afraid, they’re going to bend over backwards to accomodate Brown and punt health care all the way back to the drawing board.

Victory for the Red team, right? Wooooolveriiiiinees!

I’m going to unpack this and see if I can figure out where reality is.

PREMISE 1: 70% of voters don’t know what the hell is going on. That leaves 30% who actually care enough to follow the news, beyond what they hear from Jon Stewart. 15% of Republicans and 15% of Democrats are passionate, plugged-in and well-informed. They read blogs, attend meetings and pontificate about political issues with their friends.

PREMISE 1B: 10% of the passionate, “well-informed” people on each side believe things that are ABSOLUTELY WRONG. The people who are supposed to be fact-checking things and sorting out truth from lies decided that was too hard, so no matter how stupid the quote is, if it comes from an elected politician, they’ll run it, pair it with a denial from the other side and say their job is done.

As a result, even the people who try to keep up with this stuff are liable to take ridiculous things as articles of faith.

For example, most of these passionate Democrats honestly believe that state-run medicine would be cheaper, better and more accessible than a private system.

On the other side, Republicans honestly believe we can “win” the war in Afghanistan and turn Iraq into a functioning democracy.

PREMISE 2: Voters are old.

Twitter, Facebook and SMS all you like but the people who actually show up and vote are people who have a stake in the system and have time to study it. That means OLD. Retired people are the heart of the electorate. They have time to attend meetings, time to organize protests and time to fill message boards with political nonsense.

PREMISE 3: That 70% doesn’t show up at the polls unless they’re scared of something or angry at something.

Combine Premise 2 and 3 and you realize the quickest way to get booted out of office is to scare or offend old people.

Conclusion? Old people are terrified of health care reform. They don’t care about the poor because they live in gated communities where they are sheltered from poverty, just as surely as they’re sheltered from rain, wind, and edgy TV.

They don’t care about health care because they already have health care. A retired voter can lecture you about the evils of socialized medicine while sitting in the lobby of the Medicare office. Reference Premise 1B above.

Those three premises contain all the information you need to unpack the election of Scott Brown. You might think this points to a Republican sweep in 2012 but don’t forget Premise 4.

PREMISE 4: Because voters are ignorant and confused, they fear any kind of dramatic change. The minute any kind of change gets too radical or too confusing, the 70% will rise up and squash it. That applies to Democrats trying to push health care through in 2010 and to Republicans trying to cut spending in 2012.

Republicans trying to cut spending? Sorry, I need to use more realistic examples. I meant, “Republicans trying to send more troops to Iraq in 2012.”

So, the trick is, soothe the voters’ desire for change without actually changing anything.


That’s the flip side to running on “change.” Voters love change because change, by itself, doesn’t actually mean anything. Change means something different to each voter. Obama voters thought change meant, “Ending the war.” Other Obama voters thought change meant, “Standing up to fat cats on Wall Street.”

Some Republicans even voted for Obama because they thought change meant, “Cutting wasteful government spending.”

Change is a nonsense word, a variable that means whatever you think it means. That’s why it’s so easy to promise. You promise it up front but you don’t have to define it until you actually get in office.

Do the voters want change? Voters will ALWAYS want change. That’s what change is. Change is a variable that stands for “things that voters want.”

When a politician promises change he’s basically promising, “I’m going to give you whatever you think you want right now!”

That works great until he gets in office and that nebulous variable has to take the form of actual policy. “But you guys said you wanted health care, right?”

In conclusion, Scott Brown was elected by angry, frightened old people who thought that Obama was going to screw up their health care. They hated the lazy, entitled witch who ran on the Democrat side and they’re angry at Obama for promising them the moon and bailing out Wall Street instead.


This does NOT translate into automatic support for Republicans, however. This election is a mandate for change, but change doesn’t actually mean anything.

The real challenge for Republicans is to associate this nebulous idea of “change” with an actual set of policies that people can agree on. Newt Gingrich did this with something called the Contract with America. He took the idea of “change” harnessed all the energy from it, and told voters, “Change means all the stuff on this list, right?”

Newt was careful to put things in that document that the majority of focus group participants voters could agree on, so they said, “Sure!” and put him in office.

If Republicans want to take power again, they have to define themselves as a broad, open coalition that believes in a clear list of popular things.

And for the rest of you, the undifferentiated mass in the 70%? You have to figure out what you want. Citizens are so burned out on politics now, they’re not even bothering to decide what they believe in anymore. They’re actually waiting for politicians to tell them what they should want.

It’s like expecting a job applicant to invent his own job.


Don’t take your base for granted.
Don’t rouse the sleeping 70%.
There is no such thing as a “mandate” anymore.

And finally, if you promise change in 2008, you damn well better CHANGE SOMETHING by 2010.

Apologies for the giant political rant. I promise I won’t do this again before November.

Written by Michael B. Duff

January 21, 2010 at 19:43

Posted in Politics

3 Responses

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  1. You saw Jon Stewart on 1/18? Priceless. 😀

    Scott K

    January 21, 2010 at 19:54

  2. Hadn’t seen it, but it’s like Jon and Maddow are the same person.

    I guess the whole “Internet Democrat” scene thinks alike.

    What’s the difference between an “Internet Democrat” and a real one?

    About 20 years.

    Michael Duff

    January 21, 2010 at 21:03

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