You don’t have to be an independent “swing” voter to be fed up with obstructionist gridlock in Washington. Believe me — enlightened Republicans and Democrats are sick of it, too! But if swing voters are, arguably, less ideological and more centrist than voters affiliated with the major parties, their pragmatic analysis of the consequence of their Senate vote is critical before Nov. 6.
The tight Senate contest in Massachusetts is touted as “the Number One Senate race in the country” because its outcome could determine which party will control the next Senate majority. The stakes of that outcome will merit much more than a “That’s politics!” shrug of resignation on November 7.
History matters, so it’s worth remembering that when President Obama called for bipartisan cooperation during his first term, it was the Senate’s minority leader, Mitch McConnell, who proclaimed his number one priority was to make the president a one-termer. Translation: Major issues facing the country “be damned;” our mission is to obstruct on every procedural and policy front because if we cooperate, the president’s party will benefit by achieving something for the American people.
That cynical formula for guaranteed gridlock has been the pre-meditated and constant practice of the “new” Republican Party in the last two sessions of Congress. In the upcoming Senate battleground races, swing voters here and around the country must decide whether to reward such political malpractice by giving the perpetrators control of the next Senate — adding to their present stranglehold on the House of Representatives.
Regrettably, the ideological make-up of the Grand Old Party has changed drastically in recent years. The nouveau Tea Party ideologues have moved the old Republican Party’s mainstream to the radical right. On the House side, Speaker John Boehner is hobbled as GOP leader because the uncompromising right-wingers elected in 2010 have got him ... well, by the tea bags!
The same is true of a rapidly and radically rightward moving Senate minority. Earlier this year, Utah’s Republican incumbent, Senator Bob Bennett, was unceremoniously dumped by Tea Party delegates for not being conservative enough for re-nomination; Indiana’s long serving Republican Senate statesman, Dick Lugar, was ousted by the Tea Party for being too “moderate;” Maine’s highly-regarded Olympia Snowe had enough of extremist litmus tests and obstruction and chose to retire. Make no mistake. This is not a temporary GOP identity crisis; this is a concerted fringe-right power purge resulting in seasoned GOP “moderates” becoming endangered species without influence in their own party and in “compromise” — the very essence of politics — being boastfully disdained.
So, it’s reasonable that Massachusetts swing voters ask: “If the heart of Scott Brown’s 2012 campaign is his boast of “independence” and “bipartisanship,” why are the obstructionist Tea Party activists who helped elect him in 2010 supporting him again in 2012?” Here’s the honest answer. To them, he’s just a number — a numerical means to a political end. All the Tea Party cares about is increasing the Republican Senate caucus from 47 to 51 members. If it succeeds succeed in just four states, the Senate’s Tea Party maestro, Jim De Mint of South Carolina, or current minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, will take majority control of an obstructionist agenda in the Senate; the strident ranting of a newly emboldened Tea Party against constructive compromise will be louder than ever; and Massachusetts’s junior senator will be further marginalized by his right-wing colleagues.
In an earlier time when pragmatic deal-makers from both parties held the Senate’s balance of power, when a clash of ideas in civil debate led to legislative compromise, when shared responsibility for resolving political differences led to more enlightened public policies, it may have made sense for Massachusetts swing voters to pair Republican Leverett Saltonstall with Democrat John Kennedy or Republican Ed Brooke with Democrat Ted Kennedy. Each worked to deliver votes from their respective and respected parties to advance the larger interests of our Commonwealth and country.
Sadly, this is a different time. So, the practical question thoughtful swing voters must answer on Nov. 6 is whether to pair a marginalized freshman Republican with Democrat John Kerry with the likely consequence that Massachusetts will have handed control of the Senate to the unyielding ideologues of the militant right.
My good pal, the late Speaker “Tip” O’Neill, would quote his father’s admonition: “All politics is local.” This November, I am certain he would say — “But, not this Senate race!”
Paul G. Kirk Jr. served as interim US senator from Sept. ’09 to Feb. ‘10.