Tuesday's special U.S. Senate election in Massachusetts will establish the context for political 2010. It also will contribute to a continuing change-of-guard in the Senate, a development that has made that body entirely different from the one which existed only a generation ago.
First, Tuesday in Massachusetts. State Attorney General Martha Coakley was presumed until a few days ago an easy winner in her contest with Republican state Sen. Scott Brown to fill the remainder of Sen. Ted Kennedy's term. Massachusetts is, after all, the most blue of our 50 states.
But, since then, Massachusetts apparently has contracted Virginia and New Jerseydisease. In those states, solidly Democratic in 2008, Republican gubernatorial candidates were handily elected last fall. Since that time, Democratic Sens. Chris Dodd and Byron Dorgan have withdrawn their candidacies for 2010 reelection. President Obama's public-approval ratings are the lowest on record for any U.S. president on the first anniversary of his inauguration. His health-care initiative, still pending in the Congress, has majority disapproval.
Suddenly, Coakley and Brown are in a virtual dead heat. If you were a contributor to a Democratic or Republican federal candidate or committee over the past several years, you have in these past few days received more fund appeals than you have for Haitian relief. (I counted no fewer than 30 e-mails seeking money for Coakley between this past Wednesday and Friday). Obama and nationally known Democratic and Republican figures are making personal appearances in the Bay State.
Coakley is a candidate who could be called, politely, a party regular. She was not the late Sen. Kennedy's favorite to be his successor. She was soundly defeated in a statewide TV debate last week by Brown, who has successfully "nationalized" the Massachusetts contest, making it a referendum on Obama's and the Democratic Congress' performance over the past year.
Media coverage would have you believe that a Brown victory would be unprecedented in such a Democratic stronghold. Well, not quite. Republicans such as Leverett Saltonstall, Edward Brooke, Eliot Richardson, and Mitt Romney have won and held statewide office in Massachusetts. A Republican can win there if he or she is perceived as moderate and if the Democratic standardbearer is comparatively weak. Those circumstances apply now.
A Brown victory would be seen as a forerunner of further Republican gains elsewhere in 2010. ("If Republicans can carry Massachusetts, they can win anywhere.") It also would be seen as endangering passage of the pending federal health-reform legislation. Reform bills barely cleared both House and Senate and, it is thought, might lose moderate Democratic votes from legislators feeling their reelections endangered.
Despite late momentum toward Brown, I find it hard to believe that Massachusetts' strong Democratic organization would fail to bring Coakley home successfully. If the state is hit by a snowstorm or other extreme weather, limiting turnout, then Brown's chances would improve.
Now, some thoughts about the Senate as an institution. Kennedy's death, Dodd's withdrawal, and Sen. Robert Byrd's perilous health have drawn attention to the fact that the Senate that existed when they arrived has dramatically changed.
A couple meaningful signs of the times: When former Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey made his maiden Senate speech, in 1949, it included criticism of conservative Virginia Sen. Harry Byrd, who had stymied civil-rights legislation. Byrd was disliked by Senate Democrats. But Humphrey, nonetheless, was shunned for months because of his harsh words about a colleague on the Senate floor.
Last month, by contrast, another Minnesota freshman, Sen. Al Franken, refused to allow Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman, a former Democratic vice-presidential candidate, one extra minute of time to complete a floor statement. His colleagues were surprised at Franken's rudeness but generally gave him a pass.
Other, more meaningful changes have taken place. Until quite recently, no major legislation would have been attempted without securing in advance its co-sponsorship by one or more prominent members of the other party. Ted Kennedy always proceeded on that basis. Humphrey, the principal author and sponsor in 1964 of the Civil Rights Act, enlisted Minority Leader Everett Dirksen in his effort and went out of his way to give him undue credit for that legislation's eventual passage. President Lyndon Johnson, possessing huge Senate and House majorities after his 1964 landslide victory over Sen. Barry Goldwater, secured Republican sponsors and votes for Medicare, Medicaid, federal aid for education, Voting Rights, and other legislative initiatives — even though he had more than enough Democratic votes to pass them without Republican support.
Those leaders all knew that no major policy change would be lasting if passed on a one-party basis. This stands in contrast to the path taken over the past year by Obama and Democratic congressional leaders with stimulus, cap-and-trade, and health-care legislation. All were drafted and passed on a Democrats-only basis.
This was particularly surprising in the case of the health-care legislation because it could easily have drawn bipartisan support — with the addition of tort reform provisions and the enabling of health-insurance companies to sell their products across state lines (two provisions that most Democratic legislators would have been willing to concede). The Senate today reflects the polarization felt in the country at large. Should Republicans regain a Senate or House majority, they are quite likely to operate in a similar one-party manner.
One other thing has changed importantly in recent years. Until some 25 years ago, most senators had personal friendships among colleagues of both political parties. They knew each others' families and socialized frequently. Senate spouses met as a body on a regular basis to undertake charity activity, have lunch, and bond.
Today it is rare for a senator to have more than two or three personal friends among the 100 in that body. There are alliances of convenience and cooperation on specific pieces of legislation. But few senators are pals anymore — as Ted Kennedy and Dodd were genuine pals over many years. They spend less time with each other, more raising political money and relating to the single-issue and special-interest constituences on which they depend for their reelections.
It is hard to visualize a return to the old Senate when courtesy — sometimes elaborate courtesy — mutual respect, and often genuine friendships characterized relationships among its members.