Unsolicited Advice for Senator Brown

If Scott Brown asked my advice about how he should proceed with his political career I would start by giving him a brief primer on the present dynamics of federal elections in Massachusetts, the bottom line of which would be that his short term electoral prospects have very little to do with who he is, or what he says or does.

When he is able to appreciate the reality of the state’s electoral dynamics; those fundamental structural factors that cannot be altered by even the slickest, more capable campaign, Brown will be in a position to think clearly about his political future. He has to come to the realization that “he” didn’t win the 2010 special election. He did not vanquish his opponent by skill and daring. His opponent’s missteps weren’t even central to the outcome on Election Day.

He won in 2010 because he was an acceptable Republican candidate in an election where the structural dynamics heavily favored the Republican candidate. He needs to truly appreciate that without the very peculiar structural dynamics of the 2010 contest, he could not have won. Indeed, even with the benefit of a sort of “perfect storm” he only beat a weak Democratic candidate narrowly.

My first specific recommendation to Brown would be to stay on the sidelines in 2013, without foreclosing the possibility of running for the senate or one of the state’s constitutional offices in 2014. I’d recommend he hint at the possibility of either the corner office or the state Attorney General’s office.

However, if the senator was intent on getting back to the big dance ASAP and wouldn’t even hold off until 2014, I would tell him that there is one thing that “might” make him more competitive in 2013 and bolster his primary argument for election. If he were seen as a primary architect of a fiscal cliff compromise that passes just prior to his senate carriage turning back into an ox cart, he might have the “game changer” he’d need in 2013. Stop tweeting about being on your way to DC to solve the crisis and start spending some quality time with Mitch McConnell’s staff working out both a serious compromise and a deal to get the credit.

Obviously, there isn’t time now to get in position for this kind of buzzer beater. If he could have pulled it off, it would not only have burnished his bipartisan bona fidas, but would also have mitigated the power of the general political environment that presently weighs heavily against any Republican in a Massachusetts US Senate race. He never had a realistic chance against Warren because his claims of moderation and bipartisanship were not credible enough to overcome the fact that at present Massachusetts voters are simply not willing to do anything that would empower the Republicans in their efforts to obstruct President Obama.

Assuming he can’t pull off this storybook political accomplishment and insists on attempting a quick return to the senate, I would advise Senator Brown to consider doing the following: First, avoid superficial posturing on the fiscal cliff crisis. Instead, devise and publicize a settlement plan aimed squarely at moderate Bay State voters who would like to see a resolution that gives the president a win, the top 2% a tax increase, and the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party a loss. If his plan is reasonable, and especially if parts of it end up in whatever eventually passes, Brown will have enhanced his credibility with Bay State moderates. Second, announce that you will be a candidate for the senate in 2014, not 2013.

The unavoidable reality is that Brown can’t win in 2013 (barring unforeseeable events) because he has no realistic hope of an outsized conservative turnout and an under-sized progressive turnout, both of which are prerequisites to victory for a Republican in a special election. In other words, without the very peculiar composition of the electorate that turned out on January 19, 2010, Republicans cannot win a special election for the US Senate in Massachusetts.

If Scott Brown spent the next year and a half making a positive (and seemingly non-partisan) contribution to the national political narrative he would (or at least could) be a more viable candidate in 2014. He would have a chance to gain credibility as a fiscally prudent, socially liberal, Massachusetts guy. He would have time to nurture his moderate, bipartisan credentials without the burden of having to cast votes in the Senate. Also, while the national political mood is anathema to Bay State Republicans at present, it may well be more friendly (or at least less unfriendly) to Scott Brown in 2014.

The obvious objection to this strategy is that Brown would be the odd man out if a Republican did manage to win in 2013. However, the very long odds against any Republican in 2013 should be enough to justify the gamble.

His best bet is to play a long game with an eye to maintaining credibility and positioning himself to exploit any useful events that might alter the larger political context, nationally and in Massachusetts. I can’t see any long term down side to positioning himself squarely in opposition to the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party. In the absence of significant progressive disappointment with the Democratic Party in Massachusetts, which is very unlikely in the near to medium term, the Bay State’s right wingers have no real hope of matching their rhetorical enthusiasm with votes on Election Day.

Scott Brown’s political future in Massachusetts depends on his ability to “create” a swing voting contingent. Because the so-called “swing vote” is essentially a myth in Massachusetts federal elections, Brown should patiently nurture the creation of such voters over the long haul if he wants to have a real shot at a career in the US Senate, which is why my best advice for Brown involves forgetting about a senate run in 2013 or 2014 and instead setting his short term sites on a statewide office for which he is undeniably qualified, like state Attorney-General, while fixing his long term gaze on a moderate, viable Massachusetts Republican Party.

The most difficult hurdle in front of Brown right now may well be all the encouragement he is receiving from Republicans to run in next year’s special election. All the right wing media cheer leading, which portrays Brown’s personal political prowess as the key to victory, must be hard to keep in perspective. I hope, for Brown”s sake,” he has at least one sober truth teller in his inner circle, who is honestly looking out for the “once and future” senator’s real political interests.

The only real weapon in Scott Brown’s political arsenal is his brief tenure in the US Senate and the good will and popularity with a small, but not insignificant, portion of the state’s electorate that his 15 minutes of fame earned him. Losing elections can only reduce his political capital. Patience is Brown’s best play right now.

If, on the other hand, he can’t abide patience and if his moderation and passion for returning principled compromise to American politics is genuine, then Brown’s accumulated political capital may make him the most well positioned person (in Massachusetts at least) to embark on the sort of “post partisan” independent political career track he hinted at in his 2012 campaign. An “independent” candidacy in 2013 or 2014, and a promise that if elected he would not vote for a Republican in the chamber’s leadership election, thereby eliminating the threat of giving aid and comfort to the Republican leadership, would certainly be novel and interesting.

About Jerold Duquette

Jerold Duquette is an associate professor of political science at Central Connecticut State University. He is the author of Regulating the National Pastime: Baseball and Antitrust and has published articles and book chapters on campaign finance reform, political parties, Massachusetts politics and political culture, public opinion, and political socialization. Professor Duquette lives in Longmeadow, MA with his wife and four children.
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