Topic: Government and Politics

Lessons from the Brown Victory in Massachusetts

In this new video, Cato’s David Boaz and John Samples evaluate what Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts means for Democrats and Republicans in the near and far term. Samples and Boaz contend that Tuesday’s election sent a message to Democrats that they have clearly overreached, but Republicans need to be careful and realize that they’re still not very popular either.


John Samples is the author of the forthcoming book, The Struggle to Limit Government, available soon at the Cato store.

Are We Mad about SAFRA?

This morning I mused about whether yesterday’s Massachusetts miracle would curb the drive to have the feds take over K-12 education. In particular, I wondered if the president’s new proposal to extend the “Race to the Top” – and as part of that directly connect local districts to the feds –will meet an almost immediate demise as legislators dive frantically to avoid the backlash against ever-expanding federal power.

My hope is that it will, but I’m not especially sanguine. The prospects for stemming the centralization tide are probably better today than they were yesterday, but federal education initiatives tend to have a fair amount of bipartisan support, especially if they throw money at public schools – which liberals like – as well as things like charter schools, merit pay, and “standards” that conservatives support. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if President Obama, facing hopeless prospects on health care, cap and trade, and other anger-igniters, were to propose reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act as one big Race to the Top. Incorporating both big bucks and things conservatives endorse, it would stand a pretty good chance of garnering some Republican support. And that would allow Obama to say he has learned his lesson about working with both parties while letting legislators head back home declaring that they’d done something “for the children.”

In sum, I’m not sure whether Scott Brown’s election is actually a good or bad thing at the K-12 level. I am much more optimistic about higher education, specifically the effect Brown’s victory will have on the odious Student Aid and Fiscal Responsbility Act, a piece of legislation that supporters say will save taxpayers money but that will almost certainly cost them dearly. The House passed SAFRA in September, but Senate action has been in a holding pattern while that body has been paralyzed by health care.

Why the optimism on SAFRA and not in K-12? Because Race to the Top is stealthy, involving relatively small amounts of money and ostensibly letting states and districts freely choose if they want to participate. Not so SAFRA, which if anything has been overly demonized as a federal takeover of the student-lending industry because it would cut “private” lenders out of massively subsidized federal-loan programs.

Of course, if the lenders are hugely subsidized they are hardly private, at least in any meaningful sense. Nonetheless, the loudest argument against SAFRA – which would consolidate some additional power at the federal level and spend like a drunken sailor – is that it’s a federal takeover. From a political standpoint that’s huge. With Brown having successfully run on a platform primarily opposing big and ever-growing government, many one-time congressional supporters of SAFRA will no doubt have to think long and hard if they really, really want to bear the label of “federalizer.”

My suspicion is that, given the new political environment, a great many will decide that they don’t.

Scott Brown and the Future Supreme Court Vacancy

Josh Blackman and Lyle Denniston offer some thoughts on the effect of Scott Brown’s Massachusetts earthquake on the looming retirement of – and the nomination of a replacement for – Justice John Paul Stevens.  Josh and Lyle both latch onto the idea that Brown’s providing the 41st vote to sustain a potential Republican filibuster could cause President Obama to nominate someone more moderate than would be the case if the Democrats had maintained their super-majority.  Lyle goes on to speculate that both Obama and Senate Democrats, looking to this fall’s election, will generally want to tack right in the face of an emboldened GOP and impatient electorate.

I think this sort of analysis is a misapplication of otherwise correct political analysis to the sui generis event that is a Supreme Court nomination.  Yes, Scott Brown’s presence in the Kennedy people’s seat will change the dynamic of the health care debate, definitively kill cap and trade, otherwise alter the Democrats’ legislative agenda – and even affect lower court nominees.  But I’m not so sure it will affect Obama’s calculus in picking a new Supreme Court justice.

Here’s why:  Despite having been a constitutional law professor – whom I did not have when I was in law school, though I passed him in the halls a few times – the president has not really tried to advance his ideological agenda in the courts.  It’s bizarre, really, that judicial nominations have not at all been a priority for this administration given that few people pay attention to lower court appointments and this could have been a place where the president could have thrown some bones to his base at little political cost (and certainly far less cost than the rest of his domestic agenda).

Moreover, based on the Sotomayor nomination, we see that when it comes to the Supreme Court, Obama is much more about affirmative action than appointing either the best-qualified Democrats or the most ”progressive” ones (or both, to provide a counterweight to Justice Scalia).  (Note that Sotomayor at the time of her nomination was nowhere near the best or most left-wing member of the federal judiciary.)  Even with a filibuster-proof Senate majority, we would have been unlikely to see a Cass Sunstein or Harold Koh pick – though each took not insignificant heat and delay in being confirmed to regulatory czar and head State Department lawyer, respectively.  (And Larry Tribe is too old.)

With Sonia Sotomayor, Obama hit the “twofer” of a woman and a Hispanic (the first unless you count Benjamin Cardozo).  With the Stevens replacement, women and minorities are still slightly preferred but the key “diversity” quota to fill is “non-judge” – and, per the above, a non-controversial one on whom the president won’t have to spend much political capital.

And so, while the prohibitive favorite – solicitor general Elana Kagan (and a woman) – is no surprise, you heard it here first that the other likely nominees, in no particular order, are Janet Napolitano (DHS secretary, woman), Deval Patrick (Massachusetts governor, black), Jennifer Granholm (Michigan governor, woman), Kathleen Sullivan (former Stanford dean, lesbian), Amy Klobuchar (senator, woman), and Akhil Amar (Yale law professor, South Asian).  I’ll comment on their relative merits in future posts, but nobody on that list is both a radical and an intellectual heavyweight, and the list has not changed with Scott Brown’s election (though the indirect spotlight during the campaign on Gov. Patrick’s unpopularity might have hurt his chances).

The Tea Party Comes Home

Today, Politico Arena asks:

The message from Massachusetts

What now for the Democratic agenda?

My response:

Listening to Scott Brown’s long, barely scripted acceptance speech last night, you had the refreshing sense that you were listening to an ordinary American, not to some political cut-out.  Here’s a guy who campaigned in a pick-up truck with over 200,000 miles on the odometer, who listened to the voters and understood that they wanted not simply to block tax hikes but to lower taxes (and the last thing they wanted was for their taxes to pay terrorists’ lawyers bills!), who understood that even worse than the health care bill now before Congress were the back-room deals that brought it about, who’s served proudly for 30 years in the National Guard – in short, here’s guy you’d be comfortable having a beer with because, as he said, “I know who I am and I know who I serve.”

Which brings to mind the famous Rose Garden beer the president and vice president shared with Prof. Gates and Sgt. Crowley – speaking of (dis)comfort.  And that brings to mind Cambridge, which stayed true blue, 84-15, Walter Russell Mead informs us this morning in his delightfully tongue-in-cheek Arena post.  (“First, some good news for Democrats: the base is secure.”)  As goes Harvard, so goes Berkeley.

But to today’s Arena question.  The Democratic left is predictably outraged that “the people” they so love in the abstract have so disappointed them in the concrete.  Exhibit A is last night’s Arena post by The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel.  Railing against “the Tea Party’s inchoate right-wing populism” (if it’s infested Massachusetts, shudder to think of it in Idaho!), Katrina tells Obama to “get tough, get bold, kiss ‘post-partisanship’ goodbye,” and “put yourself squarely back on the side of working people” by “passing the strongest possible healthcare bill as quickly as is feasible.”  And there’s the cliff, Katrina.

Lanny Davis has more sober advice for Obama in this morning’s Wall Street Journal.  To those who are pointing fingers at Martha Coakley, Lanny says, “This was a defeat not of the messenger but of the message” – the unrelenting leftism that has come from this White House and this Congress.  And he points, by way of instruction, to Bill Clinton’s response to the disastrous elections of 1994, though he doesn’t mention Clinton’s ringing, albeit inaccurate, description of his course-change – “The era of big government is over.”  Is it in Obama’s DNA to make such a course correction?  Does he have a reset button?

On health care, Obama and his party are in an almost impossible situation.  If they press ahead, as Nancy Pelosi and others are urging, the cliff awaits them in November.  But if they abandon their project, what will they run on in November?  It’s a mess of their own making, of course, so completely did they misread the election of 2008.  What better evidence of the endurance of principles of sound, limited government that some two centuries later, The Tea Party has come home to Boston.

Happy Anniversary, Mr. President

I have some thoughts on Obama after one year at

Happy anniversary, Mr. President. Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts is a rude ending to a year marked by falling poll ratings and growing opposition to his signature policy initiatives….

President Obama has several models to choose from: He could reverse his tax-spend-and-regulate policies and hope for the same economic and political results that Reagan achieved. He could, like Bill Clinton, recognize the political obstacles to his sweeping ambitions and learn to work with Republicans on modest reforms. He may well end up like Lyndon Johnson, with an ambitious domestic agenda eventually bogged down by endless war. But I don’t think his wished-for FDR model — a transformative agenda that is both popular and long-lasting — is in the cards.

Read it all. And be sure to hit “Recommend” at the top and add a Comment.

Can Scott Brown’s Election Stop the Federal Takeover…of Education?

Yesterday, I wrote about President Obama’s proposal to extend the Race to the Top program, this time letting school districts completely bypass state governments and apply directly to the feds for funding. I pointed out that the proposal was one among several troubling signs that Obama intends to put Washington fully – and, of course, unconstitutionally – in charge of American education.  At the time, I didn’t realize how right I was.

When I was writing yesterday I was basing my comments on documents from the White House’s website and hadn’t yet read the details of what went on at the President’s photo-op announcing the proposed extension. I sure wish I had: At the dog-and-pony show, the President just came right out and said that he wants to push aside states – mentioned by name was famous holdout Texas – that dared to invoke the Constitution and not participate in a program that was, Constitution or no Constitution, supposed to be voluntary.  

“Innovative districts like the one in Texas whose reform efforts are being stymied by state decision-makers will soon have the chance to earn funding to help them pursue those reforms,” intoned the President. 

Fortunately, Texas Governor Rick Perry wasn’t about to be cowed: “I will say this very slow so they will understand it in Washington, D.C.: Texas will fight any attempt by the federal government to take over our school system.”

So it’s pretty certain now, more so even than just 24 hours ago: President Obama wants to federalize American education.

Thankfully, a lot can clearly happen in 24 hours. Yesterday’s election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts could very well send shockwaves of fear through the ranks of Democratic (and maybe even Republican) legislators in DC, who might finally get the message that Americans just don’t like federal takovers. Heck, perhaps even the President will get the message. If so, then maybe even something as relatively small as a $1.35-billion scalpel designed to cut through states and get right at districts could be seen as too dangerous to handle.  

That’s speculation, of course, but we should know a lot more  in just, oh, the next 24 hours.

The Brown Revolution

Around the world over the past decade, longstanding and stultifying power elites have been toppled by what came to be known as the “color revolutions” – notably the Rose Revolution in Georgia, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and hopefully the Green Revolution in Iran. Now the political elites in Boston and Washington have been rocked by the Brown Revolution.

Pundits have been describing a possible Brown victory in terms like “canary in the mine,” “depth charge,” “shock waves,” “nuclear explosion,” “full freak-out,” and “angels will weep and the Charles River will run red with blood.” Political scientist Raymond La Raja said a Democratic loss would be the first shot in what could be a revolutionary war – “like the Battle of Lexington and Concord.” That’s what worries the Democratic ruling establishment.

This “revolutionary” video got more than 400,000 views in the week before the election.

Scott Brown takes over a seat in the United States Senate that has been held by one family (including its seat-fillers) for just over 57 years, since John F. Kennedy was elected to it in 1952, before Brown was born. Massachusetts hadn’t elected a Republican senator since 1972. In the closest U.S. Senate race of the past decade, Democrat John Kerry won by 35 points.  All 10 of its House members are Democrats, and about 90 percent of both legislative chambers. That’s a well-entrenched political establishment. And as so often happens with long-ruling parties, it has seen its share of corruption: Three consecutive House speakers have resigned under clouds. It’s no surprise that Massachusetts Democrats have finally encountered the kind of voter reaction that national Democrats did in 1994, and national Republicans in 2006 and 2008.

Given President Obama’s falling job approval, growing opposition to the Obama health care plan, the recent elections in Virginia and New Jersey, the fury in Nebraska over Ben Nelson’s wheeling and dealing, the growing recognition that libertarians are a major part of the decentralized “Tea Party” movement, and rising poll support for “smaller government,” the Brown victory is a flashing red light with a siren warning Democrats not to proceed with a health care bill that voters don’t like and a big-government agenda that Americans weren’t voting for in 2008.

Brown is no libertarian. But he campaigned against the Obama-Reid-Pelosi health care plan and against tax increases, so he will be part of the opposition to the current governing agenda. And he stood up to challenge the Democratic machine when no one else did. And certainly events in Georgia, Ukraine, and elsewhere are sufficient reminder that the failings of individuals don’t invalidate the popular movement.

How does an entrenched political party respond to a successful rebellion? Well, one way is for both the local and national officials to refuse to certify the results of the election and try to ram unpopular programs with the votes of rejected legislators. Would Democrats try to do that with more elections looming in just 10 months? Harry Reid and Barney Frank say absolutely not. Expect a lot of scrambling this week.