Was Scott Brown's Win about Health Care?

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January 20, 2010

When Scott Brown won the special election for a U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts, the Democrats lost their 60 seat majority and possibly the chance of passing national health care reform during an Obama presidency. We wanted to understand whether this election was a referendum on health care or not, so we caught up with Rabbi Jonah Pesner.

Pesner currently is the Director of Just Congregations, the community-based organizing initiative sponsored by the Union of Reform Judaism. In addition to being one of the nation’s top Jewish resources on social justice issues, Pesner has an intimate knowledge of Massachusetts health care reform. A former rabbi of Boston’s Temple Israel, Pesner also served as the chair of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, and spearheaded that group’s successful effort to pass landmark health care reform in Massachusetts.

Zeek: What are your impressions about what this election means?

Pesner: First, I’d like to say that I’ve worked with Martha Coakley and never met Scott Brown, so I come with that background. What I’m experiencing in talking to real human beings in Massachusetts is that there is a lot of anger and frustration out there.

Massachusetts is a complicated state, because even though there is a strong Democratic party machine and a sense of liberalism, most of the voters are independents. People don’t want to be pigeonholed. They size up the person who is running. Scott Brown tapped into the anger and frustration people are feeling.

Martha Coakley has been a very good attorney general, and a very dedicated public servant, but for whatever reason she did not run hard. She did not get into districts, she didn’t knock on doors, she didn’t sit in people’s living rooms—and she made some unfortunate comments about people who do that work. She also made some very unfortunate comments about our sports teams. Meanwhile, Scott Brown was touring the state in his pickup truck. So people thought, Scott Brown is actually listening to us, while Martha Coakley came off as elite and aloof and out of touch.

Zeek: What about people in the Jewish community?

Pesner: The same. God did not hand the Democratic party to the Jewish people at Sinai. People in the Jewish community are saying to me, health care is a disaster, we have to start over. At home, in Massachusetts, they were saying to me, at least Scott Brown will be a check on this health care plan. If liberal Jews from Newton were concerned about Obama’s health care plan enough to consider voting Republican, wow.

Zeek: Some pundits are saying this election is a referendum on health care reform. Massachusetts has a health care reform plan you helped pass. Are people voting against Massachusetts’ health reform? national health reform?

Pesner: The media are overtheorizing this election. The American electorate like to elect people they think will care about them.

When health care passed here, I don’t think people were aware of the sausage making it took. A Democratic majority worked with business and labor to get a bill that a Republican governor would sign. They all worked together.

The national sausage making is not kosher. Congresspeople are not succeeding at working together. And people don’t understand the plans. I don’t think many of the Massachusetts voters know what’s in either the Senate or House plan.

Brown did run on the platform of stopping “Obamacare,” but that wasn’t really the issue in Massachusetts. This was a special election, and the campaigns took place over the holidays—over Christmas, New Year’s, MLK day. Brown had a lot of issues that connected to people. He came out very strong about the Christmas bomber. He talked about the economy.

Meanwhile, Coakley was nuanced and cerebral; she reminded me of Mike Dukakis who gave a really intellectual answer during the presidential debates when he was asked whether he would advocate for the death penalty for a man who raped his wife. He just didn’t get that people wanted to see him as a real person, just like Coakley didn’t seem to get that people here really care about the Red Sox.

What might have hurt Coakley the most was a key moment during their debate, when Brown said, “this is not Kennedy’s seat, it’s the people’s seat” and Coakley didn’t know how to respond. She let herself get painted as the entitled one. That doesn’t play well.

Zeek: Turning to the national issue, do you think the national health care bill has gone so far off track that Obama should scrap it and start over again?

Pesner: No. The cost of doing nothing now would be too big to bear. The sausage making continues.

The one clear policy implication of this election is not about health care reform at all. It’s that people still are really struggling. They don’t experience that struggle as being around health care—they experience it as being around the economy. Politicians need to focus on economic programs, on putting limits on Wall Street, on stimulating job growth. If their programs will take 2-3 years, they need to explain that. Someone has to explain why things aren’t getting better and yet we are still paying high (and sometimes higher) taxes.

Zeek: Thank you.

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