By the time you’re reading this piece, the world will know whether Republican Scott Brown defeated heavily-favored Democrat Martha Coakley in Tuesdays all-important special election in Massachusetts. Even if the GOP challenger falls short in his bid to bring off one of the most significant political miracles of recent years, the unexpectedly close nature of the race in the Bay State conveys important messages to all Americans who care about the nation’s political future.
1. Ballots matter more than demonstrations, petitions, community organizing or media commentary. The Scott Brown campaign echoes another wintry New England election from 42 years ago. On March 12th, 1968 a little known Minnesota Senator named Eugene McCarthy managed a shockingly strong showing in the New Hampshire Primary against the entrenched, all-powerful Democratic incumbent, Lyndon B. Johnson. McCarthy actually lost (by a margin of 49% to 42%) but his impressive vote total drew Bobby Kennedy into the race, ultimately forcing LBJs withdrawal. Most importantly, McCarthy’s New Hampshire campaign gave mainstream recognition to the anti-Vietnam war movement for the first time. A faction that drew that kind of support in a relatively conservative state, against a President who had won a crushing, coast-to-coast landslide victory less than four years before, suddenly drew media and public respect. Peace activists had been staging major demonstrations, teach-ins and even draft resistance for more than two years, but after this election, New Hampshire administration supporters could no longer deride the Vietnam protesters as an irrelevant fringe, representing a small fraction of the public. The ballots in the Granite State showed the political potency of sentiment previously derided as extreme and irresponsible.