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Scott Brown's ascendancy as a 'Massachusetts man of the people'

By Kathleen Parker
Wednesday, January 20, 2010; A15

There will be much harrumphing and punditry in the next few days about the meaning of Scott Brown's victory and his phenomenal campaign for Ted Kennedy's U.S. Senate seat.

How, in the final days of an election all but certain to go to the Democrats, did Brown, a mere state senator, manage to raise millions and rattle the machinery of his blue-hearted state?

Democrats who see the world through denial-colored glasses want to blame their candidate, state Attorney General Martha Coakley, for her halfhearted, tone-deaf campaign. Certainly she has earned some of that criticism.

Coakley presumed her ascendancy without bothering to work for the vote, even once saying: What am I supposed to do, shake hands in the freezing cold outside Fenway Park? That's like the pope saying: What am I supposed to do, celebrate Mass in St. Peter's Square?

While Coakley was ignoring the tsunami outside her window, Brown was hanging ten on a wave of dissatisfaction -- standing on street corners, hand-delivering yard signs and, yes, shaking hands in the freezing cold. Coakley's remark that devout Catholics shouldn't work in emergency rooms if their pro-life consciences conflict with the law of the land was tin-eared and insensitive.

Finally, and not least, Coakley's comment that former Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling is a Yankee fan put her squarely in the category of clueless.

Brown, by contrast, was the people's genius, a guy's guy who conveyed genuineness -- the antithesis of everything Americans despise in Washington. The un-elitist, Brown was more than an alternative to his rival. He was a reformer promising change to a people weary of hope.

Democrats trying to paint Republicans as the "Party of No" were simply being crushed by a candidate who was saying, "Oh, yes we can, but not like this." Remorseful independents who had voted for the unifying and faux-centrist Barack Obama responded to the candidate who seemed to be in touch with their reality.

The meaning of Scott Brown should be clear to Democrats facing midterm elections in November. Not least, Republicans have learned how to use the Internet to build momentum and raise money. Brown collected more in online contributions the past week than can be spent, though how much, the campaign won't say. It can't go unmentioned that Brown also benefited from the strategic brilliance of Mitt Romney loyalists Peter Flaherty and Eric Fehrnstrom, who guided him from relative obscurity to talk of the nation.

Although Democrats flail against the obvious, the real message of Brown's ascendancy signifies opposition to current health-care reform. His surge has been an echo of 1994, when a backlash to Hillary Clinton's attempt to overhaul health care sparked a Republican takeover of Congress.

Brown couldn't have come close to victory in a statewide race without the health-care issue. He couldn't have raised so much money except for welling anger throughout the country.

As important as the Massachusetts special election was to the health-care debate, it also represents a come-to-Jesus moment for the GOP. What kind of party will it be?

On the surface, Brown's success, especially among independents, suggests that the GOP tent is expanding to make room even for moderate, pro-choice candidates like Brown. Have fiscal conservatives displaced social conservatives as the base? Or have the Palin-Huckabee Republicans made room at the inn out of expediency? Perhaps the party has embraced the philosophy of a retired state GOP chairman, who once said to me: "A good Republican is a Republican who wins."

Then again, Coakley's social positions were politically extreme, even by Massachusetts standards. Whatever the case, it would be a mistake to fashion Brown into a party savior, say insiders close to the race. Brown is sui generis -- a candidate uniquely suited to his time and place.

As one GOP operative put it: "No one should expect him to be a conservative icon, because he's not," she said. "He's a Massachusetts man of the people."

Yes, those Republicans who did everything possible to elect him proved to be pragmatic. They understood that someone like Jim DeMint of South Carolina couldn't win in Massachusetts. But ultimately, as others, including the president, can attest, no one can live up to iconic status.

What can be inferred from the Brown-Coakley race is that a new national mantra has emerged from the electorate that bodes ill for Democrats.

It's no longer hope and change, but something sturdier: Reform or die.

kathleenparker@washpost.com

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