This November the voters of Massachusetts will be taking a one question poli sci quiz of sorts. They will be asked if they realize that politics is a team sport, not an individual one. It’s a true/false question. To answer “true” voters will select either Romney and Brown or Obama and Warren for president and U.S. Senator respectively. To answer “false” they will select either Romney and Warren or Obama and Brown. This quiz will effectively be on the ballot in every red state with a Democrat running for the House or Senate and every blue state with a Republican running for the house or senate.
Voting for a Democratic president and a Republican senator, or vice versa, reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the real world operation of America’s national government, especially in its current iteration. Political scientists have for decades been telling us that “parties matter,” while politicians running for election and re-election have frequently tried to minimize the importance of their party membership and maximize their personal connection to voters.
The reason is simple. If voters are voting for the individual politician, rather than the party, the politician has much more flexibility to do as he pleases and to avoid easy accountability for his actions and decisions, something that would be much more difficult if voters used parties to hold politicians accountable. Consider the oddity of presidential candidates disavowing their party platforms in order to avoid being inhibited by policy commitments they very likely agree with, but don’t want to have to be associated with at the polls. Amazingly, many Americans are fine with this and don’t think presidents should have to identify with their party’s platform. Ironically, some think this political sleight of hand illustrates independence of mind and political courage as if a politician’s choice of party was merely a technical requirement devoid of meaningful philosophical commitments or public policy preferences.
Though “splitting” your “ticket,” is always contradictory in significant ways in partisan elections, there is a popular and not entirely irrational argument for ticket splitting under certain conditions. It has come to be seen as a way for voters to create an additional check on concentrated power in Washington or in state capitals; as a way to insure that the majority party can’t run amok or drown out the voices and interests of the minority party. By dividing control of government between the parties, it is thought, we can force partisan politicians to compromise and cooperate out of necessity.
The most salient complaint about Washington politics in 2012, however, is that it is “gridlocked” with a Democratic president and Republicans on Capitol Hill unable to rise above petty partisan bickering and compromise to get things done. The recent debt ceiling fiasco is emblematic of the current state of affairs in Washington, DC. Under these conditions, logic dictates that Democrats from Red states and Republicans from blue states should have great difficulty asking voters to “split their tickets,” since by doing so they are exacerbating the party division at the root of Washington’s present dysfunction.
So, how will Republican Massachusetts senator Scott Brown get out of this seemingly inescapable trap? By making the race about himself and his challenger; by focusing on his character and personal connection to voters and attacking his opponent as dishonest and politically extreme. Brown is presenting himself as a “moderate, pro-choice Republican” in hopes than enough Obama voters will consider him the best person to fight against Washington gridlock and partisan obstructionism. For voters with a clear understanding of the fact that gridlock is facilitated by divided party control, this argument is laughable, but Brown is targeting “low information” voters, who can be distracted from real world politics and made to focus on Brown’s personalized campaign message.
How is Brown making this flatly deceptive case? First, he has run as far as he can away from his party’s national image and leadership, including his own presidential nominee and close friend Mitt Romney. He has taken whatever opportunities he could to condemn right wing extremism, such as the recently aired views of Republican senate candidate Todd Akin about “legitimate” rape. He has even aired a TV commercial in which President Obama appears in an effort to claim that he works well with the Democratic president.
Voters who “like Brown” and intend to split their ticket between him and President Obama argue that his moderate views will make him a force for compromise, while Warren seems to them to be too extreme. This view only makes sense if you totally ignore the rules, norms, and real world operations of the senate, and even then it’s highly debatable. These folks don’t realize that Brown’s moderation won’t prevent Republicans in the senate from increasing the acrimony and gridlock in Washington, especially if they become the majority party in the chamber. Nor have they considered that he and Senator Kerry will be cancelling out each other’s votes on virtually all the major policy issues of the day, rendering the voices of Massachusetts voters largely mute in the U.S. Senate. “But Brown will resist his party’s extremism even if they are the majority party,” some argue. Even if we accept that Brown is a moderate (this requires a very selective reading of his voting record), he cannot stop the extremist leaders of his party from appointing rightwing chairmen to every senate committee, or putting control of the senate’s docket in the hands of Republican leader Mitch McConnell, the guy who said that his party’s number one political priority was to make Obama a one termer. There can’t be any compromise on President Obama’s proposals if the House and Senate Republican majorities refuse to consider them. Because parties make the rules and call the plays in the U.S. Senate, one lone member, especially in the current environment, cannot change the agenda or tone of his party.
Massachusetts voters might be more susceptible to this pitch, some argue, because they have split their state government tickets frequently in modern times, sending Republicans to the corner office and Democratic majorities to the legislature on Beacon Hill. Two elements of this contention are problematic. First, Massachusetts voters have never in modern history put a Democrat in the governor’s office and a Republican majority in the state legislature. Second, ticket-splitting in Massachusetts has always followed the more logical path for that tactic, namely placing a check on the state’s dominant political party, the Democrats, in order to create some partisan resistance, not to ease it. This November, voters supporting Obama AND Brown are totally contradicting themselves. They think they are casting a vote against party gridlock and extremism when in fact they are voting FOR partisan gridlock and extremism, especially since Brown could easily be the difference between a Democratic or a Republican senate majority.
Massachusetts Republicans are betting that they can fool just enough Obama voters this November to get their man re-elected to the U.S. Senate. The media’s obsession with superficial campaign performance and media imagery are (unintentionally) pretty helpful in this regard because they focus entirely on the candidates and reinforce the popular but incorrect notion that voters should ignore or actively resist party appeals. I guess the rules and true nature of the game played in the U.S. Senate are thought to be too “inside baseball” to be newsworthy or easily understood by voters.
So in the end, Republican Scott Brown is asking Obama supporters in Massachusetts to send him into one of the most competitive team sports in the world- the U.S. Senate- BECAUSE he’s not a team player. Ain’t that something?