Massachusetts race takes the pulse of the nation

Dan Ackman Contributor
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I wouldn’t omit the possibility of a last-minute turnaround, but all indications are that Scott Brown will beat Martha Coakley and take “Ted Kennedy’s seat” in the U.S. Senate.  The Democrats are gearing up to blame the defeat of Coakley’s lack of skill as a politician—doesn’t shake hands, doesn’t know who Curt Schilling is, can’t spell Massachusetts (who can?)—and they’ll have a point.  But overall, it’s a face-saving effort and a dangerous illusion.  (For the record, Curt Schilling is a pitcher who played 20 years in the Major Leagues, mostly for Philadelphia and Arizona, but Red Sox fans have reconfigured him as an icon of their team.)

First, it’s not as if Coakley is otherwise Daniel Webster and it’s not as if Brown (I am lawyer, but look at my truck) is Tom Harkin (that is a pol who can win on personality even in a state where he should never win).   This race, is, rather and probably correctly, being seen as a proxy on first, the state of the Union, second, Democratic policy in policy in general, and the healthcare bill in particular.

The politics of the healthcare bill are not good, though no one who’s for it (and when I say “no one,” I mean, of course, my wife and the three other people I talk to) seems to understand or want to understand these politics.  Roughly 85% of Americans do have health insurance.  It may be a “scandal” that 15% do not, but the vast majority has it.  And they see it as something they have worked for—as indeed they have if healthcare is part of their compensation for work.

When they see a health care bill filled with all kinds of items that have never been explained (or were explained, but while the TV dial was set elsewhere) they get worried that they might lose the health insurance they do have.  Or they might worry that they’ll be taxed. But if they think at all about the unfortunate 15%, those thoughts are secondary.  To be sure, President Obama and Democrats make the case that the bill will help “everybody” because it will make everyone’s healthcare (that is, health insurance, which is related, but not the same thing) more secure.  But the bill has been sold first of all as a way to expand coverage, which is probably the main thing.

Expanding coverage may be a fine idea.  Making everyone’s healthcare more secure is a good idea, too, I think.  But most folks have it and figure it’s secure so it really doesn’t help them.  They don’t worry as much about losing it, or those who don’t have it to begin with, and they don’t believe the government or the Democrats are helping them keep it.  And that’s the rub.

Ted Kennedy, of course, had built up a huge reservoir of good will both in Massachusetts and in the Senate.  If he said healthcare was a good idea, people might be inclined to trust him. Even if they didn’t believe him or agree, they were not going to vote him out of office because of their disagreement.  Coakley doesn’t have that luxury.

The irony is that the long-term trend may be that Americans do face the loss of health insurance coverage.  This is because job security as a whole is on the decline for good or ill, there are more independent contractors and so on.  I suspect that when people lose their health insurance they tend to blame the government.  But few who have it give government policies any credit.  So if Brown beats Coakley, there will be politics and, yes, policy to credit, and not Coakley’s political ineptitude to blame.

Dan Ackman, based in Jersey City, NJ, has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Forbes magazine, The Daily News and Slate among others.

Dan Ackman