This year’s campaign for the US Senate has offered few surprises. Each candidate has been only too willing to settle into his appointed role: Ed Markey, the reliable veteran congressman who embodies core Democratic principles; and Gabriel Gomez, the charismatic Republican newcomer whose positions on issues are a work in progress. Markey could benefit from a greater willingness to break with Democratic orthodoxies; Gomez could benefit from a few animating issues that help define him.
But these flaws don’t burden the candidates equally. Like a job seeker with a stellar resume who doesn’t entirely dazzle in the interview, Markey nonetheless retains some important selling points. At 66, he’s one of the nation’s most talented legislators, taking on such complex and farsighted tasks as charting national telecommunications policy. While some members of Congress sit back and let others do the heavy lifting of drafting bills, Markey prides himself in being at the forefront of major initiatives. In 2009, he led the House to pass a “cap and trade” bill to make historic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, a deeply important measure that got bottled up in the Senate. He pushed through new requirements for airline cargo screening. He was the leader in extending daylight-savings time, a deceptively significant move that saved billions of dollars worth of electricity.
Far from being a detriment, Markey’s Washington experience fills a need for a state that lost Senator Edward M. Kennedy to brain cancer in 2009, and John Kerry to the State Department this year. Freshman Senator Elizabeth Warren is carving out a niche on banking and loan issues, but it’s not realistic to envision her exercising enough clout to, say, provide an extra $250 million a year in federal reimbursements to Boston’s teaching hospitals, as Kerry did. Markey, who served in the House with dozens of current senators, has proven beyond any doubt that he’s a vigilant guardian of the Bay State’s interests in the capital: He will step easily into the role of veteran dealmaker, making himself the go-to guy for local industries and institutions.
That’s a credential that Markey downplays on the campaign trail, probably because some voters wrongly assume that members of Congress who represent their parties on major issues must be part of the Washington gridlock, partisans who resist compromise. In fact, it’s usually back-bench ideologues that block progress, not party leaders. It would be logical for Gomez, in challenging a congressman with nearly 37 years of seniority, to argue that Markey’s time has passed, that however excellent his service, the voters deserve a fresh voice. But Gomez hasn’t made that case. Instead, he argues that Markey, with his long tenure, must bear responsibility for all the failures of Washington during that time, from excessive partisanship to piling up decades of debt. “Congressman, you are Washington,” he declares repeatedly.
This slogan may reveal as much about Gomez’s lack of knowledge of the legislative process as about Markey’s failures. For while Markey’s record is, indeed, long enough to extend back to the Carter era, Gomez’s political dossier is blank: He’s running as himself, with no track record in office. That’s why his failure to identify key priorities beyond those already in front of the Senate is a missed opportunity to fill in some of the space in his political resume. In contrast, Warren made it clear as a first-time candidate last fall that, apart from any other issue that might arise, she would focus on bankruptcy and financial regulation. Voters need such information. Knowing candidates’ personal priorities helps to illuminate what makes them tick. Voters simply don’t know enough about Gomez as a politician.
They know more about his background. A Navy SEAL and Harvard Business School graduate, Gomez has a first-class resume for politics. He also has a flair for campaigning, donning a flight jacket, flashing a “Top Gun” smile, and breaking into Spanish in the middle of TV debates. Gomez is comfortable in his own skin, and unafraid to mix it up with critics — which distinguishes him from the often self-conscious Scott Brown, the last Republican nominee for the US Senate.
But Brown still looms over Gomez’s candidacy, mainly because Gomez’s pitch to voters is almost identical to Brown’s: Wouldn’t the Bay State be better off with a centrist Republican who can create bipartisan support for some of President Obama’s agenda than with a party-line Democrat? It’s a compelling offer, and voters took it with Brown. And then rejected it.
Even if Gomez proved to be more effective than Brown — a big assumption, since Brown had far more political experience than Gomez — Brown showed that there are limits to what an outlying moderate can do in a deeply polarized GOP. Elected by Massachusetts voters as a “Scott Brown Republican,” he gained instant celebrity within his party as the 41st vote against President Obama’s initiatives. The Brown experience gives credibility to Markey’s claim that a Gomez victory would be received in Washington not as a call to the Republicans to embrace moderation, but as a sign that if Republicans keep resisting Obama’s agenda, they’ll eventually start winning close races.
Nonetheless, Gomez’s vow to enter into budget negotiations with “no preconditions,” and to consider judicial nominations without any litmus tests, deserves respect. He’s entirely right that Senate and House members need to approach such issues with an eye toward common ground, not digging trenches. While Markey’s record in the House suggests he’s willing to look for areas of agreement, his actions on the campaign trail indicate otherwise: He’s bashed Gomez repeatedly for failing to reject in advance any changes to Social Security or any judges who might be open to overturning Roe v. Wade. These are issues of principle for many Democrats, but they should realize that even Obama has stated that modest changes to Social Security are necessary to preserve the program in its current form. Likewise, there’s a clear danger in applying litmus tests to judicial nominees: Too many qualified people get excluded. On these issues, Gomez has been more reasonable than Markey.
But other Gomez positions are simply puzzling. While preaching bipartisanship, he also inveighs against the 2008 bank bailout, the most significant bipartisan act of recent decades. It prevented another Great Depression and ended up costing the government relatively little. Sensibly, Markey voted for it. Gomez’s alternative — creating tax incentives to persuade financial companies to bring money home from overseas — wouldn’t have rescued the banks and is jarringly off-point. Gomez seems to have confused the bank bailout and the stimulus bill. Either way, it suggests that he is making up his positions on major issues as he goes along.
Gomez has many fine qualities, and could evolve into a capable centrist leader for Massachusetts. He should continue to pursue his political career. But for voters, this election shouldn’t be a close call. Markey is well suited to represent Massachusetts in the Senate. His stellar career is a much better advertisement for him than his overheated TV ads. It shows him to be a leader of unusual diligence, and of far more nuance than his campaign would suggest.