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Joan Vennochi

Having it both ways

Senator Scott Brown’s delicate political dances show just how hard he tries to hide what he believes in

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / June 6, 2010

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TED KENNEDY was a loud champion for causes like lifting the ban on gays in the military.

His successor, Senator Scott Brown, is a quiet champion for having it both ways.

As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Brown opposed the amendment that calls for quick repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,’’ saying he wants to wait for the Pentagon to complete a review on how the ban will be lifted. That’s the headline he wanted, and he got it.

But then, Brown voted for the full defense authorization bill, which includes the “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ repeal amendment; Senator John McCain of Arizona, an early Brown backer and the ranking Republican on the committee, voted against the bill because of that amendment.

Brown also said he will not join with fellow Republicans to mount a filibuster to prevent a Senate vote of the defense bill.

With Brown staying away from a filibuster, and Senator Susan Collins of Maine supporting the repeal amendment, his fellow Republicans will have a tough time sustaining a filibuster.

So, if the bill comes before the full Senate and passes before summer recess, as Democrats hope, Brown will have helped them achieve what they want — early repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.’’ Just don’t tell everyone.

Brown, is indeed, the anti-Kennedy, not with every position he takes, but in his desire to hide what, if anything, he believes in.

Kennedy thundered his stance, unafraid of attack. Brown is more mysterious. As a candidate, he took a clear side against the health care reform legislation that was the cause of Kennedy’s political life. But since then, it’s a delicate fan dance for the Bay State’s junior senator.

He’s for a filibuster on the financial regulatory bill, then against it. He’s against repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,’’ then, sort of, for it.

Republican consultant and Brown adviser Eric Fehrnstrom argues that the senator’s position is reasonable and consistent. He voted against the amendment to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ because “he wants to wait for completion of the Pentagon review before any action is taken on repeal.’’ He voted for the broader defense measure because, “In this case, he doesn’t think the controversy over ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ should be allowed to torpedo the whole bill.’’ So much for completion of the Pentagon review. So much for principle.

This is what Brown considers “independence’’ — a shrewd calculation motivated by obvious desire to win reelection in Massachusetts without totally abandoning his national GOP poster boy appeal, at least not yet.

From the moment of his historic victory as a Republican replacing an iconic Massachusetts Democrat, Brown had to choose between the folks back home and conservatives who adopted him as their hero.

For the most part, he’s going with the votes back home. He teamed up with Democrats on the $15 billion jobs bill and the financial regulatory bill. The Tea Party crowd is not happy about it — a plus in Massachusetts.

The political calculus around gays in the military was tricky for Brown.

One poll found that 77 percent of Massachusetts voters backed repealing the bill and advised that a vote for repeal “would reinforce the positive image he has among those I’s [independents] and D’s [Democrats] who voted for him in January.’’

His office confirmed that he met personally with one gay member of the Massachusetts National Guard right before the committee vote. The guard member, who does not want to be named out of fear of adverse fallout, has worked with Brown, a fellow member of the guard, who currently holds the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Judge Advocate General Corps.

The guard member who met with him expressed disappointment with Brown’s vote against the amendment, but views his refusal to filibuster as a quiet victory for the cause.

There was nothing quiet about Kennedy’s victories. He was proud to say what he believed in, and unafraid to vote for it.

It’s a tough act to follow and Brown’s balancing act is even tougher to carry out.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.

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