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Scot Lehigh

Political pirouettes in the Senate race

By Scot Lehigh
Globe Columnist / November 11, 2009

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ATTORNEY GENERAL Martha Coakley and US Representative Mike Capuano each revealed something fundamental this week.

Coakley showed that, contra Voltaire, she’s ready to make the perfect the enemy of the good enough. Capuano demonstrated that he’s trickier than Talleyrand, the mutable French minister whose name is synonymous with craftiness. Or at least that he aspires to be.

Speaking Monday on WTKK radio, Coakley said she would have voted against the House health care bill because it forbade publicly subsidized health insurance plans from covering abortions. Later in the day, she declared she would, as a senator, oppose the Senate bill if it included such a restriction.

Coakley’s declaration gave Capuano the opening he’s been looking for. And at a packed Monday event at the Park Plaza, the man we’ll call Not-So-Open Mike pounced. Noting that Medicare, Social Security, and the Civil Rights Act also had flaws when first “voted in,’’ he declared: “One of our candidates has now said publicly and reaffirmed it that they would have voted no on the bill on Saturday. Now if that is the answer then every single member of the Massachusetts delegation, every single member of the New England delegation, every single pro-choice woman in Congress, every single pro-choice member of Congress, was wrong to have voted yes to move the health care bill forward.’’

Although a review of the tape reveals that he never exactly said as much, from his rousing remarks about the bill, it was easy to come away with the impression that Capuano thought that the overall goal of health care expansion justified accepting the abortion restriction. (Did he simply mean that Social Security, Medicare, and Civil Rights were important enough to move from one branch of Congress to the other?)

Thus I was surprised to read in a Globe story by Matt Viser yesterday that Capuano’s camp had refused to say how he would vote if the final health care bill included such an anti-abortion provision. And flabbergasted when, in response to my queries, his campaign later released a statement saying that if the anti-abortion language stays in the bill, “he will vote no.’’

Oh my. For Capuano’s sake, let’s hope the congressional health plan offers coverage for candidates who become so dizzy from turning political somersaults that they suffer self-inflicted injuries to the foot.

For his part, Bainiac Steve Pagliuca said in a statement he would have voted against the amendment but in favor of the overall House bill. When I asked, his campaign said Pags would support health care legislation even if the abortion restriction remains.

City Year co-founder Alan Khazei, in his own statement, said he would have voted for the House bill to move the process along and he would then fight to remove the provision in the Senate. But if the bill that emerged from conference committee included the amendment, “I will reluctantly vote for it in order to achieve the important goal of universal health care,’’ and then immediately begin working to change it, Khazei said.

In a race that has lacked definition, we’ve learned something valuable.

Let’s start with the frontrunner. It’s possible that Coakley is simply taking a stand that plays to her female base - a possibility reinforced by a fund-raising letter her campaign has already sent out highlighting her stance. But if one takes the AG at her word, she elevates the issue of abortion coverage over a dramatic expansion of health care. It also reveals a prosecutor’s absolutism and not a more nuanced assessment of the politics of the possible.

As for Capuano, the man who purports to be a courageous call-them-as-he-sees-them straight shooter proved himself adept at taking refuge in self-serving distinctions - distinctions so carefully drawn that they could easily lead the unwary observer astray.

Khazei and Pagliuca revealed themselves as more pragmatic than Coakley and more straightforward than Capuano, offering positions that made the difficult but, at least in my view, correct judgment that if the choice must be made, expanding health care trumps the setback on abortion access.

Wherever one stands, however, the last few days have brought the Senate candidates into much sharper focus.

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