Why Brown won

To say that Scott Brown’s Massachusetts victory last week changed the political world is to state the obvious, but what’s more interesting is that neither Democrats nor Republicans seem to have absorbed the real meaning.

Brown didn’t win because he ran a better campaign than Martha Coakley, although he did, and he didn’t win because, as Sally Quinn put it, he’s a “hunk,” or even because the president and his friends in Congress haven’t been aggressive enough in pushing for the “change” they believe Americans voted for last year.

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Nor did his win reflect the public’s new-found faith in the GOP, as some Republican leaders seem to believe. There aren’t many Republicans in the Bay State, and Brown didn’t flaunt his Republicanism during the campaign, because he does seem to understand the nature of the real world right now. Even in victory, Brown was wise enough to talk about issues without even a mention of the Grand Old Party.

Brown’s was neither a local nor a party victory. Some Democrats, referring back to the late “Tip” O’Neill’s rule that “all politics is local,” have dismissed the national implications of the race. That is a mistake that could spell disaster for Democrats across the country this fall. Sometimes national issues and waves swamp local issues. That’s what happened to Democrats in 1994 and it’s what happened last week in Massachusetts. Brown’s victory was based on issues and growing public disquiet in the way a personally popular but wrong-headed president seems bent upon pursuing policies most Americans oppose.

Republicans, to their credit, seem to at least dimly understand that it is going to take awhile to undo the damage done to their party’s “brand” over the last decade and are beginning to listen to what’s going on outside Washington, but Democrats are either in denial or have drawn the wrong conclusions about how much damage they’ve managed to do to their “brand” over a much shorter time.

Thus, Democrats are piling on Coakley in the way they piled on Jon Corzine and Creigh Deeds when they lost gubernatorial contests in New Jersey and Virginia last November. None of these were great candidates, but great candidates are rare and none of these would have lost their races six months or a year ago. They were both successful elected officials who lost this time not because voters in these states didn’t understand, but because they did. Democrats who continue to push for policies voters don’t like are likely to suffer the same fate in November.

Most out of touch are the ideologues who believed last November that they and their new president had won a mandate to Europeanize the U.S. economy and dismiss our enemies around the world as but minor irritants or folks who would beat their weapons into plowshares in the face of a self-effacing president willing to take all or most of the blame for their ills.

They are convinced the president’s problems stem not from the policies he’s pursued, but from the fact that he hasn’t been aggressive enough in pursuing them. To them it’s not about the issues or his approach to dealing with the problems we confront, but to an administration’s and party’s failure to communicate with a public that, if it only knew, would support the president’s most radical desires. They want a 2010 debate on the healthcare plan now on life support and actually seem to believe that the American people will accept the argument that America’s current problems are traceable to George W. Bush.

Unfortunately for all of them and for the country, the president seems to have bought into this thinking. He’s promised to be more feisty and is shifting rhetorically from healthcare to the sort of populist class warfare that has never worked in the past and isn’t likely to work now. The signals from the White House are underscored by the decision to carve out a more important role for the president’s former campaign manager.

David Plouffe is a bright fellow and may have been a great campaign manager, but his technical expertise in how to use the Web and social networks to further his candidate’s message will only help the president’s opponents this time around; it is precisely the Obama message (and the policies that message is crafted to sell) that is the problem.

Keene is chairman of the American Conservative Union and a managing associate with the Carmen Group, a Washington-based governmental consulting firm.