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Watson

Scott Brown's Win

Micah Watson, Assistant Professor of Political Science & Director, Center for Religion and Politics
Jan 25, 2010

This column appeared in the Jackson Sun on January 22nd, 2010.

One of the small pleasures of following politics is that occasionally there are genuine surprises. To be sure, with a 24-hour news cycle, paid spinmeisters for both parties and an avalanche of newspaper and Internet punditry, the same political event can be hyped up, toned down, dismissed, buried, celebrated, twisted or ignored completely, depending on the source. And so it will be with the latest political bombshell that hit the nation Tuesday with Republican Scott Brown defeating Democrat Martha Coakley in the Massachusetts senatorial special election to replace the late Ted Kennedy.

As the national media and political party operatives sort through the aftermath, here are some quick observations from one of your own West Tennessee political observers.

First, it simply is an astonishing political development. That a fairly conservative Republican could run on: 1. opposition to Obama's health care plan; 2. national security, including using enhanced interrogation techniques (read: waterboarding); and 3. cutting taxes; and succeed the liberal icon Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts is nothing short of astounding. It is a political story that will reverberate for some time to come. Watch in the weeks to come for more Republicans to announce that they are running for office, and look for more Democrats to announce retirement. Spending time with the family may suddenly become a higher priority for many politicians in tenuous circumstances.

That said, and second, there is a lot of time between now and the 2010 midterm elections, and an eternity of political time until the re-election campaign for 2012. Whether you are a gleeful Republican or a despondent Democrat, don't make the mistake of reading too much into this. The first president Bush enjoyed 90 percent approval ratings shortly after the Gulf War in the early 90s, and look how that turned out for him. The moral is that things can change a great deal between now and the next election. How much change depends on the answer to the third point.

Will President Obama learn from his first year in office? Conservative columnist Jim Geraghty notes that previous presidents such as the Bushes, Clinton and Reagan all had significant political defeats that they learned from. After the Republicans won convincingly in 1994, Clinton famously declared that the era of big government was over. In other words, he adjusted his strategy to accord with political reality.

Obama has not had a similar experience before becoming president, and he will be pressured by some elements of his base to push through with health care reform despite its decreasing popularity. This election, and the Republican victories for governor in Virginia and New Jersey, have shown that independents are leaving the Democrats in droves. If Obama can move to the middle without completely alienating his liberal base, he has a good chance at recapturing some of those independents.

Finally, Republicans would do well not to take their recent good fortune as indicative of the electorate's carte blanche support for Republican policies. It seems clear that President Obama and congressional Democrats misread the 2008 elections as a mandate for their progressive vision for America. Besides the historic nature of electing our first African-American president, 2008 appears to have been much more about a rejection of Bush than an enthusiastic acceptance of Democratic policy preferences.

Republicans, if they want to avoid the fate of their 1994 forebears and current Democrats, need to offer tangible, incremental solutions to practical problems while resisting the temptation to shoot for the moon. This does not mean they have to compromise their principles to appeal to independents. Rather, in an environment in which both parties are held in very low esteem, whichever party can establish a measure of competence and civility in the most pressing matters of jobs and security may earn the trust needed to present a more ideological agenda down the road.