Political Hay

Scott Brown’s Shrewd Vote

In fact, you might say it was politically brilliant.

By 2.25.10

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On Jan. 19, Scott Brown was the great right hero. On Feb 22, he became, in some quarters at least, a dirty, liberal traitor. He voted for cloture on the Senate Democrats' jobs bill, then, on Wednesday, voted for the bill.

Granted, the $15 billion jobs bill was not good legislation. "Far from perfect" was how Brown described it. The bill suspends the employer portion of the Social Security payroll tax to encourage hiring. But a tax reduction of a few hundred dollars a month will hardly encourage firms to hire employees that cost thousands per month. It also pumps billions into more federal transportation projects, which, as last year's failed stimulus bill showed, is no way to help the economy. Still, Brown's vote for the bill was a good move for him and ultimately for conservatives. 

Conservative activists are the first people to attack Democratic members of Congress for "voting in lock step with Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid." It is a valid criticism, especially as applied to Democrats from more moderate states, such as Louisiana or New Hampshire. So maybe those same activists should stop and think for a moment about the political ramifications of pressuring Scott Brown to vote in lock step with Mitch McConnell. 

Scott Brown does not represent the Republican National Committee in the United States Senate. He represents Massachusetts. That's by the Founders' design, and it is a good one. If Scott Brown voted as though he were from Alabama, the voters of Massachusetts would, at the first available opportunity, send him there. Where would the conservative movement be then? 

Part of the problem here is the way we think about partisan politics. We say things like, "the Republicans control 41 Senate seats." No, they don't. Nor should they. There is a huge difference between Republicans having a member of their party elected to the Senate from Massachusetts, and Republicans controlling a Senate seat from Massachusetts. It would be a sad day for the republic if party bosses completely controlled the votes of their members. If that were the case, we would already be living under Obamacare and cap-and-trade. Thank goodness for moderate Democrats who represented the people back home instead of the party bosses on those votes. And thank goodness for Scott Brown, who got elected by promising to be an independent vote in Washington and, in his first month at least, is living up to that promise. 

But what about the bill? It's bad legislation, so how can Brown's vote for it be good? Here is how: 

Critics of Brown's vote haven't been listening to what he's been saying. During the election campaign, Brown was asked where he fit on the Republican political spectrum. He identified himself as "a Massachusetts Republican." In an interview with FrumForum, he said, "I'm the closest thing [Bay Staters] will get to a Reagan Democrat." He also said, "I've always been an independent voter, and when I have to cross party lines, I do. I don't usually care what my party says." 

Brown made clear from the start that he would not vote as a movement conservative or a leadership lapdog. He'd go his own way, regardless of where the leadership or the GOP base tried to drag him. And that's a good thing. He is, after all, from Massachusetts, remember? 

With the jobs bill -- his first major vote -- Brown established his Washington identity. He proclaimed himself an independent-minded Republican who will oppose party leaders and work with Democrats. In Massachusetts, that is the only way he survives politically. 

He also kept two important campaign promises: 1) that he will be independent of his party, and 2) that he would vote for legislation to create jobs. Now, policy wonks know that this jobs bill is ill-suited to job creation and better alternatives exist. But listen to Brown's explanation: "I supported this measure because it does contain some tax relief that will help Massachusetts businesses put people back to work." 

Brown has signaled to his constituents that he voted for tax cuts, just as he promised in the campaign. He is from Massachusetts. That's huge. 

He also said that if the bill comes back from the House "full of pork, waste, fraud and abuse, I reserve the right to vote against it." That's also important. The House version of the bill is 10 times larger -- $154 billion vs. $15 billion -- than the Senate bill. With his post-vote statement, Brown positioned himself to vote against the final bill on the grounds that it is too large and wasteful. Outstanding. 

With one vote, the holder of Ted Kennedy's old seat just established himself as a supporter of tax cuts and an opponent of wasteful, bloated federal spending. And he did that while opposing Republican leadership and defining himself as a political independent. That was not traitorous; that was brilliant. 

Scott Brown is a Republican. From Massachusetts. If conservatives want him to be able to stay in Washington so he can vote against Obamacare and other boondoggles, then they shouldn't criticize him for voting like a Republican from Massachusetts. The movement for limited government is strengthened by Brown holding that seat. To keep it, he has to vote for some things conservatives find distasteful. As long as he's voting for small distasteful things so he can stick around to vote against the big ones, that's a win for the movement.

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About the Author

Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. You can follow him on Twitter at @Drewhampshire.