Mood Swings

A psychiatrist surveys the mind and the wider world

What's the matter with Massachusetts?

Why Massachusetts voted Republican

I'm sitting in the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, looking out at the deep blue waters of Boston Harbor - an ironic place to muse on why this state voted for a Republican to replace the late Senator Ted Kennedy, and thereby practically ruin his beloved health care reform.

I hear all the Democratic leaders refusing to point fingers or lay blame. Civility, while praiseworthy, should not justify denial. We need to tell the truth. The whole country is affected by what happened, and they deserve an explanation.


A few elections ago, when the American people - actually mainly those who lived in the Midwest heartland and the South - inexplicably re-elected George W. Bush, some asked What's the matter with Kansas? Many concluded that Democrats needed to appeal to the electorate on cultural values, or, as psychologist Drew Westen put it in his smart book, emphasize that voters behave based on emotion primarily, not reason; they ask: would I have a beer with him? Not: Do I agree with him on the issues?


In 2008, Democrats in general, and Obama in particular, seemed to have learned these lessons. How soon we forget.

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Scott Brown and the Republicans did not win the Massachusetts race; Martha Coakley and the Democrats lost it. When the special election was called in September, Democrats initially waited to see if Joe Kennedy would take his uncle's mantle. (In retrospect he should have; but apparently he got scared away by some Boston Globe articles tying his non profit heating oil company to Hugo Chavez). Then Democrats waited to see if senior politicians would come forward; none did. (The dean of the Congressional delegation, the highly respected and charismatic Edward Markey, said he could do more for the state and the country as a senior congressman than as the most junior member of the senate. And that reasoning made sense at the time!) Only Attorney General Coakley came forward, a mid-level state bureaucrat with the charisma of a door-pin. Lunchbucket Democrat congressman Stephen Lynch thought about it but begged off when he could not secure full union endorsements, already locked up by Coakley and another working class liberal democrat, Mike Capuano (holder of the Cambridge-based House seat of Joe Kennedy and Tip O'Neill and John Kennedy). Two other political unknowns joined the race (a founder of the City Year volunteer corps; and a co-owner of the Boston Celtics). In repeated debates, Coakley avoided answers and remained as boring as possible, while the other three men avoided any appearance of being sexist by hardly criticizing her. "I'm glad I'm a girl," Coakley and her followers sang at one event. Political correctness won out, and the few voters who went to the primary either voted for a name they recognized (either Coakley or Capuano), or they voted for the frontrunner (Coakley), or they voted for a chance for a female Senator.


We were all to blame. The Massachusetts Democratic Party, and democrats like me, all assumed that Coakley would now win. We forgot that this "safe" Kennedy seat had been Republican for a century until JFK won it, barely, in 1952. In fact, this seat has been democratic only when held by a Kennedy, dating from now back to the Civil War. When JFK ran for president, he barely won Massachusetts, and he lost his native Cape Cod to Nixon. Massachusetts has had mostly Republican governors for the past 20 years. Massachusetts is not a purely Democratic state.


But perhaps the emotion surrounding the death of Ted Kennedy swayed us too much. We forgot that there were plenty of people in Massachusetts who would vote Republican in the right circumstances.


Time was short. In only three months, a campaign for the nomination had begun and ended. About two months were left before the general election; it was early December. Scott Brown had been basically unopposed, campaigning hard for months, and now he turned it up; advertisements went on the air, comparing his tax cut policy to JFK (as well as his visual photogenicity); he went on every radio news and sports talk show (most of which are conservative, even in Massachusetts), showed up and shook hands at the Fenway Park Winter Classic Boston Bruins hockey game (a huge event), and was, in short, everywhere. In his TV ads, he was seen driving around the state in his pickup truck, logging 200,000 miles. Coakley had no ads. She took a two week vacation over Christmas and the New Year. By early January, when the polls began to show some strength for Brown, she only had 2 weeks left before the election.


She went to Washington DC and asked for money from the DNC.


She did not go to the Boston Common and ask for votes. She did not campaign.


In 1952, when JFK initially won this seat, he put up a map of the state, and put pins in each place he visited, and, over a number of years, made sure he visited every hamlet in Massachusetts at least twice, agreeing to go on any occasion, whether it be a Rotary club meeting or an elementary school event. (All this despite his father's money; he still barely won).  In 1994, when Ted Kennedy faced his only serious race versus Mitt Romney, I was a door to door volunteer for Kennedy, and I saw him campaigning heavy and hard throughout the state for about a year.


John and Ted Kennedy worked hard to get and keep this Senate seat. Martha Coakley hardly worked.


There is an old story from Tip O'Neill. In his first Congressional election, he campaigned all over Cambridge and worked hard, but he found out that his next door neighbor, an elderly woman, had said she would not vote for him. He went to her house and said, to paraphrase, Mrs. Finley, you've known me all my life; I shoveled your driveway, mowed your lawn, delivered your paper, beginning when I was 10 years old. Why aren't you going to vote for me? Tommy, she answered; you never asked me.


Always ask someone for their vote, Tip O'Neill concluded. The voters want to be asked. We don't like to be taken for granted. We are, as the incomparable Boston Globe columnist Brian McGrory wrote in a post-election column, like a date at a dance; if you ignore us, we'll start dirty dancing with the handsome fellow winking from the bar.


Coakley did not ask anyone for their vote, until it was too late. She deserved to lose, according to Tip O'Neill's book of politics.


Some voted for Brown on the issues; but many voted because they wanted to have a beer with him, and they could not imagine Coakley in a bar. Many more did not vote for Coakley or Brown, and stayed home, because they disagreed with his policies and they were disaffected by her hauteur. I was almost one of them; the main reason I voted was to try to stop Brown at the last second. I knew the election was lost when, on election day, my barber told me that he and his wife - who had almost always voted democratic for 40 years, and who had voted for Obama in 2008 and for Capuano in the recent Democratic primary - had voted for Brown.

And being a woman was no longer a benefit for Coakley.  Can you imagine that Coakley would have even been a candidate had she posed nude in the past? No one asked Brown that question.


You would think that these politicians would understand some of the basic rules of politics. I would be a horrendous doctor if I didn't know the basics of how to do a physical examination.

How can you run for office, and not know how to run for office?

 

Nassir Ghaemi, M.D., M.P.H.,

is Professor of Psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine, and Director of the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. more...

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