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Scot Lehigh

A dicey dynamic for Brown

By Scot Lehigh
Globe Columnist / December 8, 2010

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SCOTT BROWN has enjoyed a charmed political existence this past year.

Transformed by the mood of the moment from a little-noticed state senator to a nationally known US senator, Brown has mostly managed to skip between the raindrops.

Enter the midterm elections. By encouraging the Republicans’ instinct for brinksmanship, those successes have created a difficult new dynamic for the state’s junior senator.

Last week, as he tried to balance between a conservative party and a liberal state, Brown resembled a man with one foot on the dock and the other in the canoe — just as a set of big waves rolled in.

A politician fond of stressing his reach-across-the-aisle instincts, Brown signed onto a letter declaring Republican senators would block all legislative action until the Bush tax cuts for upper earners were extended. Elected with significant labor support, he found himself looking for cover in the battle over unemployment benefits. A Pentagon report on “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ necessitated a stand on that outdated policy. Finally, the Senate’s tax cut debate forced a symbolic choice between the interests of the middle class and those of the well-to-do.

First the good news. Brown was forthright and fair in his handling of “don’t ask, don’t tell.’’ The senator had said for months he would take his cue from the Pentagon review. Although the pro-repeal report left some Republicans looking for other reasons to drag their feet, Brown quickly declared that he will now support repeal. In so doing, he made good on his commitment to be open-minded and to base his decision on the Pentagon’s findings.

On the other issues, however, the senator seemed seriously out of sync with his state. By backing Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell’s threat to stymie all legislation until Democrats surrendered on tax cuts for the well-to-do, Brown undercut his image as a solution-seeking compromiser. Despite his gimmicky proposal to fund extended unemployment benefits with unspent (and unidentified) federal dollars, the principal take-away there was that Brown was willing to see those benefits expire at a time when unemployment is stuck at more than 9 percent.

The contrast, then, was stark when on Saturday, Brown joined his fellow Republican senators (plus a few Democrats) in voting against extending the tax cuts for the middle class because of GOP insistence that any extension also include the breaks for top earners. That vote cast the differing Republican attitudes toward the unemployed and the affluent in sharp relief.

Although President Obama has now cut a deal with Congressional Republicans to extend both the unemployment benefits and all the income-tax cuts, Brown’s Saturday stance is sure to be campaign fodder. And by setting a 2012 expiration date for the tax cuts, the new deal, if approved, will put the issue front and center in the very year Brown must run again. Aside from the obvious equity concerns, our dismal fiscal situation should render it increasingly risible to claim deficit hawk credentials while favoring the long-term retention of the upper-earner breaks.

It would be difficult for any politician acting the part of a bipartisan problem-solver to operate in the new era, let alone a right-leaning senator serving a left-leaning state. But Brown’s challenges are increasing even as his modus operandi has grown old and obvious.

His laudable position on “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ notwithstanding, the senator more often acts like a pol trying to finesse rather than address difficult issues. On controversial matters, he usually keeps his options open as long as he can. He and his staff work to limit his exposure to tough media questions, sometimes by dodging reporters, other times by declaring that he is still studying the issue, still others by labeling a query too hypothetical or a matter too distant to comment on.

None of this is to predict his defeat in two years. The Democrats lack a compelling, instantly competitive challenger — if Deval Patrick and Vicki Kennedy stick to their resolve not to run, that is.

And yet, this much is clear. After a year of easy image-making, Scott Brown’s magic carpet ride is coming to an end.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.