A Populist Eruption In Massachusetts?

January 15th, 2010

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This piece was originally published in National Journal.

Imagine this OMG moment for Democrats: a Massachusetts Republican wins Edward Kennedy’s Senate seat.

What an upset that would be. It’s JFK’s old seat, for goodness sake. After JFK won the presidency in 1960, the seat was occupied for two years by his former Harvard roommate until Edward Kennedy was old enough to run. He won the seat in 1962 and held it for 47 years. Massachusetts has not elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972. Right now, the state’s congressional delegation does not include a single Republican.

A Republican Senate victory would doom health care reform. Scott Brown, the Republican nominee running in next Tuesday’s special election, has pledged to cast the 41st vote to derail the Democrats’ health care measure. The Democratic nominee, state Attorney General Martha Coakley, has pledged to support the Senate bill. She has the endorsement of Edward Kennedy’s widow and other Kennedy family members.

Massachusetts enacted its own health care reforms four years ago. How do the state’s voters feel about the bill being considered in Congress? Just mildly favorable: They support it 43 percent to 36 percent, according to a Boston Globe poll.

A Brown win would be a sensational upset. Could it happen? Some polls have shown him gaining on Coakley, but the new Globe survey has her 15 points ahead. After all, Democrats outnumber Republicans 3-to-1 in the Bay State. Still, no one knows who is going to vote in a special election — in frigid January in Massachusetts. Among the one in four poll respondents who said they were “extremely interested” in the contest, Coakley and Brown were tied.

A Republican breakthrough in Massachusetts would signal that the country might indeed be headed for a populist eruption in November. Such eruptions have happened before — twice, in fact, in the past 50 years: in the late 1970s and the early 1990s. Both were periods of economic downturn, as now, when massive waves of voter anger swept over the country. Then, as now, the anger was anti-establishment and targeted at professional politicians, or what the public perceives as the governing class.

In the late 1970s, the discontent expressed itself in the form of a tax revolt, which started with the passage of Proposition 13 in California in 1978. Voters gravitated toward people they viewed as anti-politicians, such as former Govs. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. The early 1990s saw an outpouring of voter disgust over tax hikes, a congressional pay raise, the savings and loan crisis, and the House banking scandapl. They passed punitive measures — epitomized by the mania for term limits — aimed at curbing the power of professional politicians. Ross Perot, the ultimate anti-politician, garnered 19 percent of the vote in the 1992 presidential election.

In 1978 and 1980, only about one in four Americans said they trusted the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time,” according to polls by the University of Michigan. Trust in government collapsed again between 1990 and 1995 (to an average of 22 percent). And now? Two CNN polls taken last month showed just 20 to 25 percent of Americans expressing confidence in government.

Populist eruptions can shift ideological form quite rapidly — from anti-Republican in 1974 and 1976 to anti-Democratic in 1978 and 1980; from anti-Republican in 1992 to anti-Democratic in 1994; from anti-Republican in 2006 and 2008 to anti-Democratic in 2009 and maybe 2010. The anger is anti-establishment, targeted at whoever is in power.

This year, we are seeing a new wave of voter initiatives being proposed in California: to put spending limits on government, curb lawmakers’ salaries, redraw congressional district boundaries, and possibly hold a citizens’ convention to rewrite the state constitution. Meanwhile, we are witnessing nervous incumbents retire (five Democratic and five Republican senators so far). We are also seeing the “tea party” movement trying to bring down President Obama and the Democratic majorities in Congress.

Some elements of the loosely organized tea party movement have endorsed Brown in Massachusetts. A strong showing by him next week would send a powerful message of populist discontent from an unlikely place — or maybe a not-so-unlikely place. Massachusetts hosted the Boston Tea Party, 236 years ago.