A Very Special Election

By the time this column is published the result of the special election in Massachusetts will be known. This column is hoping the outsider – Republican Scott Brown – is elected. There are two reasons for this: one pragmatic and the other principled.

As a purely pragmatic matter, a Republican victory changes the political calculations around healthcare reform. At present Democrats – including two independents who caucus with them – have sixty votes. They can thus invoke cloture on a party line vote and prevent a Republican filibuster. If Scott Brown is elected Democrats will not be able to invoke cloture without the support of at least one Republican. There are arguments of principle that can be raised both for and against the filibuster. The pragmatic point is simply this: legislation of which this column does not approve will be significantly harder to pass.

The argument of principle is this: the law is not the plaything of one political party, let alone one family. This special election has its roots in pure partisanship of the most naked kind.

Until 2004 the law in Massachusetts was the same as it is in New York and in many other states. If a Senate seat becomes vacant the governor appoints a replacement who serves until the next scheduled round of Congressional elections. This is how Barack Obama’s appointment was handled, along with Hillary Clinton’s and Joe Biden’s. In 2004 Massachusetts Democrats decided such provisions – while good enough for New York, Illinois and Delaware – are not good enough for Massachusetts.

The Democrats were concerned because their then junior Senator, John Kerry was running for President. If he had been elected the governor would have appointed a replacement who would have served for two years. Better, the Massachusetts legislature thought, to have a special election within 160 days and leave the seat vacant until it had been conducted. There is much to be said for this position. It shouldn’t take two years to organize a special election. Ted Kennedy, who asked the legislature to adopt these provisions argued that it would be wrong to let the governor fill the seat, even on an interim basis, because this would give the appointed Senator a huge advantage in the special election. The unspoken agenda, however, was thatMassachusetts had a Republican governor at the time: Mitt Romney. The idea of a Republican holding a Senate seat from Massachusetts, even for two years, was unacceptable.

By 2009 the Democrats had won control of Congress, the White House, and the governorship of Massachusetts. John Kerry had failed to become President and was still serving in the Senate, but Ted Kennedy was gravely ill. Senator Kennedy intervened again. He asked the legislature to change the law again. There was talk of abolishing the early special election provision altogether and reverting to the previous provisions, but this would have appeared too nakedly partisan even for Massachusetts. The special election was kept, but with a significant difference. The governor – being a Democrat – was able to appoint an interim senator.

The healthcare vote at Christmas depended on the appointed senator, Paul Kirk. Without his vote Democrats would not have been able to override the Republican filibuster.

But in all the talk of whether there should or should not be special election one thing that did not seem to cross anyone’s mind: that the Democrats could lose an election inMassachusetts. They have held both Senate seats for decades; the hold 80% of the state legislature positions; they hold all ten Congressional districts.

In a recent debate, the moderator suggested it would be terrible if the senator holding Ted Kennedy’s seat cast the key vote against healthcare reform, which was the cause of his life. Scott Brown, quite properly replied that it is not Ted Kennedy’s seat, it belongs to the people of Massachusetts. He’s right. They are wrong. The law should not be changed for partisan convenience.

Article provided by Quentin Langley
Lecturer in PR and Political Communications,
School of Journalism, Cardiff University

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