One-Party State

A fellow named Edward Markey has just been elected senator by the good folks of Massachusetts, who picked Markey to succeed John Kerry, who surrendered his seat in February to be secretary of state.

The run-up to yesterday’s special election yielded extremely limited interest all the way through, with the commonwealth’s attention being largely focused on the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath.  Indeed, awareness of Tuesday’s vote was so tepid that both candidates were compelled to expend considerable resources simply to remind voters which day the election was to be held.

While we could drone on ad infinitum about how depressing it is that Americans take their most sacred rights so much for granted that they sometimes forget about them entirely, the fact is that the Massachusetts election never carried anything in the way of real tension or urgency, its result never much in doubt.

Markey’s opponent, Gabriel Gomez, was by no means lacking in positive appeal.  The son of immigrants, Gomez graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy to become an aircraft carrier pilot and later a Navy SEAL.  After retiring from the Armed Forces, he embarked upon a business career that has proved quite profitable.

However, Gomez was persistently (and fatally) handicapped in the campaign by his most marked characteristic of all:  He is a Republican.

What is worse, his opponent, Markey, is a Democrat.

Considerable scholarship has been done on the eternally complicated balancing act that is required for a Republican to win elected office in a state such as Massachusetts, where a highly disproportionate number of voters are registered with the other team.

The “trick” is simple enough:  Pledge to cut taxes and not restrict the rights to abortion and same-sex marriage.  As in so much of America, to be socially liberal and fiscally conservative allows one a fighting chance for electoral success regardless of party affiliation.

All the same, events such as Scott Brown’s victory in the 2010 vote to replace Ted Kennedy are exceptions to the rule.  In the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Democrats outnumber Republicans by a score of 128-32; and in the State Senate, 32-4.

What I would argue, in the context of the special election just past, is that far more alarming than the inherent disadvantage in being a Massachusetts Republican is the inherent advantage in being a Massachusetts Democrat.

Case in point:  What was arguably the most substantively damning charge against Markey was simultaneously the most advantageous.

That is, the assertion that in his 37 years as a U.S. congressman, Markey had not once bucked the party line on any major legislation on any major issues.  Time and again, he proved a reliable rubber stamp for Democrats in Washington, with seemingly no interest in assuming a contrary view.

According to conventional wisdom, such a record is supposed to be the kiss of death.  In every last opinion poll, Americans claim to value nothing so much as bipartisanship, and will vote with happy abandon for those who credibly vow to “cross the aisle” in the interest of “getting things done.”

This week in Massachusetts?  Not so much.  In a state with more than three registered Democrats for every registered Republican, compromise is all well and good, but you know what is even better?  Liberalism, that’s what.

The people of Massachusetts were told a vote for Markey was a vote for every Democratic Party policy in the book, and they responded, “Yes, please.”

On an individual basis, this is entirely rational.  I cannot hear myself dissuading someone from voting for a candidate with whom he or she agrees on practically every issue.

Yet I despair, nonetheless, that the “D” at the end of a candidate’s name makes his or her ultimate victory more or less inevitable, just as it is still very much true that the word “Kennedy” at the end of a candidate’s name ensures the same.

This trend, as long as it persists, tends to engender a sense of entitlement amongst its benefactors and a sense of bitterness amongst those not already in the club.  Members of the first group are given every last benefit of the doubt by John Q. Voter, while those in the latter are provided none at all, and must prove themselves far more rigorously as a consequence.

Somehow this does not seem fair.  No election should be a foregone conclusion, not least on the basis of party affiliation.  No instance of the mass exercise of the right to vote should be so assured as to empower a lowly scribbler to muse upon the meaning of the results—as this particular scribbler has—before said results have even trickled in.

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Moral Vanity

One of the great challenges in running for office is the necessity to sell one’s virtues to the voting public while also, paradoxically, maintaining an aura of humility.  People tend not to admire political figures (or non-political figures) who come off as a trifle too self-regarding, and yet it is the nature of campaigning to explain to everyone how wonderful you are.

Gabriel Gomez, the Republican candidate in the special election for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, is finding it especially difficult to square this particular circle.

For a while, any great interest in the race to replace John Kerry in the Senate appeared to be one more casualty of the Boston Marathon bombing.  The party primaries were held two weeks after the attack, and attention was severely limited.  The candidates, for their part, made themselves relatively scarce, with the myriad angles of the Marathon’s aftermath sucking all the oxygen from the room.

Now, with the nominees chosen and the general election scheduled for June 25, the campaign has proceeded full steam ahead, and any fears that this would turn into a sober, issues-based affair have been duly squashed over the past couple of days.

The particular spat that has gotten the nastiness rolling—uninteresting except for what it reveals about the players involved—began with an advertisement by the Democratic candidate, Ed Markey, which assailed his opponent, Gomez, for involving  himself with a group that accuses President Obama of politicizing the killing of Osama bin Laden.  For several seconds of this ad, an image of Gomez sits on the left side of the screen while one of bin Laden floats in from the right.

Team Gomez, testing the general gullibility of Massachusetts voters, ran a TV spot in response saying Markey’s ad “compared [Gomez] to bin Laden.”  In an interview, Gomez himself continued the thought by postulating that, in doing so, Markey was “pond scum.”

And the tone of the race was set.

What lends this silly campaign flash point an added level of intrigue is Gomez’s distinction as a retired Navy SEAL.  He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and served as an aircraft carrier pilot before joining the SEALs, where he rose to be a platoon commander.  His military career totaled 13 years before he moved on to his current vocation as a businessman.

It is a highly impressive background, by any standard.  As a Senate candidate, Gomez would be crazy not to underline it as a demonstration of his physical fortitude and dedication to his beloved country.

The question, then, is when to stop.  To recognize the point at which promoting one’s history of service begins actually to hamper, rather than help, one’s campaign.

In reacting to Markey’s supposed “comparison” of bin Laden to him, Gomez phrased his disgust thusly:  “To put me next to bin Laden?  A former SEAL—maybe he doesn’t realize who actually killed bin Laden.  The SEALs did.”

We have seen this rhetorical sleight-of-hand before:  I served in the U.S. Armed Forces; therefore, anything I do or say relating to the military is axiomatically beyond reproach, and any related criticism by my opponent is beyond the pale.

During the 2008 presidential race, columnist George Will coined the term “moral vanity” to describe this attitude as it applied to Senator John McCain—the idea that one’s particular background on a particular issue cannot possibly be questioned, and especially not by those who lack the same experience themselves.

This is a decidedly unattractive quality to possess, as it would seem to rule out any honest debate on a given subject right at the outset.  After all, if one candidate has such moral superiority about this or that issue, why trouble ourselves arguing over it?  Why can’t Candidate B just accept Candidate A’s inherent rightness and move on?

Further—to my initial point—the person who commits such transgressions against intellectual openness tends ultimately only to inflict political harm upon himself, by creating the impression of having drunk one’s own Kool-Aid, and thus lacking the modesty and self-doubt that are essential in building good character and a good leader.

Gabriel Gomez served an honorable Naval career, of which everyone ought to be made aware and no one has any cause to put down.  Of the rightness of his views on the issues—military and otherwise—well, let us be the judges of that.