Those folks in Massachusetts have a way of starting revolutions, and they're still at it. The Spirit of '76 seemed to morph into a new Spirit of '10 Tuesday night as an obscure state senator up there prepared to become a U.S. one. And, at least for 24 hours, the very emblem of American independence.
What was supposed to be slam-dunk for the ruling party in the bluest of blue states turned out to be just a dunk. As for the other party, the grand old one whose funeral was being held only a few months ago, it was showing signs not only if life but of what John F. Kennedy used to call vig-ah.
The grand old party looked new again as a good-lookin' boy full of pizzazz and vinegar stepped forward to upset the best laid plans of the most entrenched Democratic machine in the country -- well, east of Chicago, anyway. Hey, what a surprising country.
The moral of this story: Never take the American voter for granted, especially if you've just tried to ram a grandiose "reform" down his throat with a little help from backroom deals and closed meetings. We the People are liable to rear up like a horse that's not about to be ridden that way.
The unlikely winner in Massachusetts has more than politics in common with voters out here on the frontier. For one thing, he drives a truck with a couple of hundred thousand miles on it. For this election wasn't about just one issue, even one as big and upsetting as health care. It was about the attitude of a party very much in power, and confident it could run over any signs of opposition from the mere people. Americans don't take to that kind of thing very well. They haven't since at least 1773 and the first Boston tea party.
If the election results Tuesday don't set the Democrats straight, well, nothing may. As the winner put it election night, if the Democrats are in trouble in Massachusetts of all places, they're in trouble everywhere in America. As much as Nancy Pelosi, speaker and suddenly shaky boss of the House, might pretend otherwise. From East to West Coast, and certainly in the middle, the natives grow restless. Already have grown restless. Not just in Virginia. Not just in New Jersey. But now in Massachusetts, where folks aren't just revolutionaries but have made a tradition of it. That cradle of liberty is still rocking away.
What a campaign this Scott Bown waged. His name was scarcely known in his own state a year ago. Now every politico in the country knows it. He did it not just by riding one issue -- all the deficits and doubts raised by the Democrats' health-care bill -- but by appealing to something deeper. Call it the populist instinct in American politics. Or just a general resentment at being taken for granted. A short name for it is independence, and at such times Americans can't resist showing it. Just to let the folks who've assumed they're in control know they're not. It happened again Tuesday night.
Result: A political campaign that began with a few volunteers in the snow ended with Air Force One making a sudden flight to Logan -- to no avail. The voters in Massachusetts have clearly had enough, and they may not be alone.
Has the country got the Democrats' attention yet? If this week's election, and its precursors on the East Coast, aren't enough to make the administration think again about government-run health care, and maybe a lot of other things, they're asking for more of the same. That's the message Massachusetts has sent.
But did Barack Obama and Co. get it? And if he did, will he act on it, and think again on the course that has just been soundly repudiated by voters in the Bay State? There is something ice-cold at the center of this president. Even when he was leading his party to a great victory, he seemed to be controlling his party's passions more than he was inspiring them. Has he grasped how deeply he has stirred the voters' passions -- and this time not in his favor? There is still time for him to change. Will he?
Other presidents have found themselves in political trouble in the middle of their terms, too. The successful ones have let the people know that their voice has been heard. Case in point: Bill Clinton responded to the historic Republican sweep of Congress two years into his presidency by letting the voters know he had got their message. He would go on to complete two terms in the White House.
In a way, this is what midterm elections are for: to let the party in power know how it's doing, and whether it needs to change course. In state after state now, the people have spoken. But will they be understood?
It seems there's always an Arkansas connection to every national story. Here's this week's:
Election day in Massachusetts, I was talking to a young matron -- my daughter -- who'd taken her five-year-old out to lunch in Brookline, Mass., deep in the heart of Greater Boston. It happens they were seated next to some visitors from abroad, who couldn't believe people in that urban enclave would give Republicans their 41st vote in the U.S. Senate -- maybe even enough to derail the health-care plan this president has made the keystone of his politics.
"Why would you vote for Brown?" one of the visitors demanded. "People will think you're from backwoods in Arkansas."
That's when the five-year-old's ears perked up. She recognized the reference, for she has a grandfather in Arkansas, and is due here for a visit soon. "We're going to Arkansas!" she said proudly. Yes, it's a big country. But it's also a small one. And a fellow who can drive his old truck to a seat in the U.S. Senate would probably feel right at home in these parts.
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