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TOM KEANE

Can Scott Brown reform the GOP?

 Brown can push his party to be a big tent.

associated press

Brown can push his party to be a big tent.

Scott Brown doesn’t subscribe to the GOP platform when it comes to social issues such as abortion. He tells voters a good idea is a good idea regardless of source. He shies away from the label “Republican” while extolling the virtues of bipartisanship. And perhaps the most powerful argument challenger Elizabeth Warren makes against him is that his reelection could shift control of the Senate to Republicans. In other words, the problem with Scott Brown isn’t Scott Brown per se, but rather his presumed allegiance to the national party.

All of which raises the obvious question: Why is a Brown a Republican at all?

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It’s no secret that the national party has moved ever rightward, becoming increasingly ideological, strident, and uncompromising. That may work — for the time being — to win elections elsewhere in the country. In Massachusetts, however, it’s a turnoff: Just 11 percent of voters call themselves Republicans. But the fact that 53 percent of all voters are unenrolled suggests that the Democratic Party doesn’t have their fealty either. Rather, the political leanings of many Bay State voters draw from both parties: economically conservative and socially liberal. Moreover, for all of its reputation as a left-leaning state, Massachusetts is decidedly pragmatic. When Mitt Romney spoke in last week’s debate about his ability as governor to work with legislators from both parties, that was an accomplishment less grounded in his personal charm than the Bay State’s lack of partisanship.

Scott Brown, left, shakes hands with Elizabeth Warren prior to their debate at UMass Lowell Monday.

associated press

Scott Brown, left, shakes hands with Elizabeth Warren prior to their debate at UMass Lowell Monday.

This blend of pragmatism and moderation is, of course, well identified with many Massachusetts politicians — Governors Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci and, at least during his first two years in office, Romney too. (Indeed, it’s not confined to Republicans — the late Democratic Senator Paul Tsongas was also one who comfortably occupied a middle ground.) Nationally, however, such Republicans are anathema to party stalwarts, mocked as RINOs (Republicans in name only) and — like Indiana Senator Richard Lugar — targeted for defeat.

In a different world, one could imagine Brown rejecting the Republican Party and embracing a third way — a new, more centrist political party. Or perhaps he could position himself (like soon-to-retire Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman) as an independent willing to caucus with either party.

Unfortunately for Brown, those alternatives likely spell electoral doom. At least since the Civil War, new parties haven’t done well in America — the two major parties have a near stranglehold on the apparatus of elections. And as much as the national Republican Party may be off-putting to voters, it’s a critical source of fundraising and organization. Warren is benefiting from national support and, to compete, Brown has to as well. Hence his delicate, awkward dance — holding himself out as non-ideological to locals while currying favor from big GOP donors.

Thus, like it or not, Brown is stuck with the Republican Party. And so he has instead cast himself as a reformer, someone who would work from within to get the GOP to change.

In truth, reform is necessary, for the Republican Party faces a crisis. It may be winning elections now, but — with its positions on gay rights, women’s autonomy and immigration — it is doing so by alienating large and rapidly growing segments of the country’s population. It’s an unsustainable model.

Support for gay issues, for instance, is a matter of one’s age. Older Americans may be more sympathetic to the GOP’s opposition to same-sex marriage, but Millennial Americans are not. Similarly, the GOP’s well-known gender gap is attributable to a range of policies rooted in a 1950s-era model of domestic life far removed from the mores of today’s women. And while one could imagine culturally conservative Hispanics naturally leaning Republican, the party’s anti-immigration stance risks pushing the nation’s fastest-growing ethnic group firmly into Democratic hands.

If the GOP wants to avoid being marginalized, it’s going to have to win back those groups. Brown could be an effective voice in that effort, pushing his party to once again be the big tent it used to consider itself.

But getting from here to there is hard. Warren is right: if elected, Brown very well could hand power to a national party that Massachusetts voters regard as noxious. The promise of distant reform may not be enough to overcome that revulsion.

Tom Keane writes weekly for the Globe. He can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.
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