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Renee Loth

The message: Loud but not so clear

By Renee Loth
January 22, 2010

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EVERY UNHAPPY electorate is unhappy in its own way, but Scott Brown’s US Senate victory Tuesday was an upset of such magnitude that analysts were struggling to find a precedent. Several landed on 1978, when a roiled-up Massachusetts populace booted out Governor Mike Dukakis and installed conservative Edward J. King, Ronald Reagan’s “favorite Democratic governor.’’

There are parallels: Dukakis was seen as aloof and indifferent, and King ran a stealth campaign that managed to capture the inchoate grievances of many out-of-power factions and ride them to victory. Brown didn’t run a hate campaign, and his emergence wasn’t so much stealthy as viral. But he did become the locus for a broad variety of resentments, from people angry over the state’s sales tax increase to changes in their healthcare to gay rights or immigration. Brown never embraced the tea-baggers and social conservatives - indeed, he tried to distance himself from their endorsements. But he was certainly willing to be their boiling vessel.

So many ingredients in the pot make it hard to pin down exactly what “the message’’ is that voters were sending this week. Is the problem big-spending government or Wall Street fat cats? Brown is a genuine political phenomenon, and interests on the left and right are furiously trying to claim meaning in his victory to serve their particular agenda. Brown won traditional Republican towns such as Dover, but also middle-class swing communities like Quincy - home to state treasurer Tim Cahill, who is running as an independent for governor. A day before the election Cahill was trying to ride Brown’s coattails. “We absolutely are targeting and trying to empower the same group of people,’’ he said. Even Deval Patrick, whom Brown’s campaign tied to the vanquished Martha Coakley as part of an uncaring establishment, looked to bask in Brown’s reflected glory. He told reporters Wednesday that Brown’s “outsider’’ campaign reminded him of his own in 2006.

Congressman William Delahunt said the election proves that the national healthcare bill is too sweeping and should be pared back. Six major insurance company stocks were up on news of Brown’s victory. But a progressive consortium that included Moveon.org conducted a survey of 2,774 voters after the polls closed, and found that big majorities think the healthcare bill doesn’t go far enough. “Democrats learning wrong message from Massachusetts’’ the consortium said. It looked interesting until the fine print revealed that 82 percent of the poll’s sample had voted for Coakley.

A more salient clue to Brown’s victory was on the Globe’s front page on election day: a report that blue-collar workers are bearing the brunt of the economic decline. The Northeastern University study found that manufacturing and construction industries shed one in six jobs since 2007, an unemployment rate equivalent to the Great Depression. These sectors, which traditionally employ men, are hurting more than those that employ women (healthcare and the service industry). In other words, men have more reason to be angry at the status quo.

And Brown’s campaign unmistakably appealed to men, even beyond the obvious contrast with Coakley. The truck, the barn jacket, the sports figures giving endorsements all signaled that Brown’s campaign was a comfortable home for disaffected men. Even his victory party, with its rock anthems and chants of USA! USA! had the look and feel of a beer-fueled tailgate party. All that triumphalism has Democrats and progressives close to panic. But it needn’t be that way. Many who voted for Brown were seemingly willing to blow by their differences in a collective primal scream. President Obama and the Democrats can regain their trust if they focus like a laser on the economy. And “the economy’’ doesn’t just mean Citibank and Goldman Sachs, but jobs, consumer protection, and real relief for homeowners. Populist anger can be harnessed to progressive politics if people get help in the places where they live. An old community organizer like Obama should be able to understand that.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.

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