It was the special-election victory that launched the Clinton era.
And the issue that fueled that victory with what was called "goat spit gasoline" was: health care.
The year: 1991.
In a shocking tragedy, popular moderate Republican U.S. Senator John Heinz of Pennsylvania was killed in an April plane crash. The Governor of Pennsylvania, the famously pro-life Democrat Robert P. Casey (father of today's junior U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania -- and holder of the Heinz seat -- Robert P. Casey, Jr.), would appoint Heinz's successor. Under Pennsylvania law that appointed successor would have to run for election to the remainder of the Heinz term that November of 1991, the winner doubtless running for re-election to the full term in 1994.
After sounding out Heinz's widow Teresa (now the wife of Massachusetts Senator John Kerry) and being turned down, Casey finally turned to his state secretary of Labor and Industry, former Pennsylvania Democratic Party chairman Harris Wofford.
Wofford was an unlikely choice. At 65, his role in American history had already been secured 31 years earlier as the man who convinced 1960 Democratic presidential nominee Senator John F. Kennedy to place a call of sympathy to Mrs. Martin Luther King Jr. when her husband was jailed on a trumped up traffic charge in Georgia. (King's real crime had been having a family dinner guest, a white woman, in his car.) It was the last few days of the Kennedy-Nixon campaign. With the nation focused on the incident and the threat to King's life at the hands of law enforcement officials feared to be Klan members, Wofford's actions also helped set in motion a call from the candidate's brother and campaign manager. Robert Kennedy called the Democratic judge in whose jail King was sitting, requesting bail. King was released, the nation breathed a sigh of relief, and the incident was said to have cemented the relationship between the blossoming civil rights community and Democrats. GOP nominee Richard Nixon, known in 1960 as a strong civil rights supporter, later wrote in his memoir Six Crises that he regretted he had taken the more lawyerly approach to not interfering with a local judge, admitting the Wofford effort had helped turn then Republican-leaning black voters to Kennedy. After Kennedy won the White House, Wofford was appointed JFK's special assistant on civil rights. Wofford had also, with JFK brother-in-law Sargent Shriver, helped to found the Peace Corps. Yet while all of this relatively ancient history had made him a well-known figure among party elites, Wofford, who had also been president of Bryn Mawr College outside Philadelphia, was an unknown to the general public in Pennsylvania. For all of his extensive and historic background in Washington and later in state politics, he had never run for office.
The campaign for the fall began almost instantly, Wofford declaring for the fall election the moment his appointment to fill Heinz's seat was announced. He was sworn in on May 9, just over a month after Heinz's death.
Pennsylvania Republicans, while still in shock over Heinz's death, regrouped immediately. They turned to the one Republican whom just about everyone felt was The Sure Thing to hold Heinz's Senate seat: Former Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh, Casey's popular predecessor and by 1991 then the sitting Attorney General of the United States for President George H.W. Bush, a position he had similarly held for the tail-end of Ronald Reagan's second term.
And as Thornburgh's media adviser? The firm of Roger Ailes, who would later emerge as the creator of Fox News.
So heavily favored was Thornburgh the polls were almost embarrassing to Wofford, the initial run of media attention even worse.
Stories leaked that Wofford had not only not been Casey's first choice he hadn't even been his second or third choice. Both former Philadelphia Mayor William J. Green (who had been defeated by Heinz for the Senate seat in 1976) and then-Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca, a native of Allentown who by 1991 was a Michigan resident, were offered the seat and turned it down. A prominent Pennsylvania pollster was quoted as saying that Wofford's public name recognition was so low that Pennsylvanians' main question would be asking "Harris Who?" On top of all this was the recognition that to tout Wofford's accomplishments with JFK meant a necessary focus on his age, which even in the post-Reagan era (Reagan having been elected at 69) was said by no less than the New York Times as the age at which "most people think about retiring."
As if all of this weren't enough of a problem, Wofford himself was the very image of the tweedy academic he had once been, totally devoid of charisma while possessed in full of all the characteristics of what one prominent Pennsylvania Republican called "an egghead." Said the State Senate GOP President with respectful glee: "I just don't see Harris Wofford as having the personality to shake hands and rub elbows."
If the Republicans were gleeful, Democrats could not have been gloomier. In the intra-state geographical rivalries between eastern Philadelphia and western Pittsburgh, the latter Heinz's home base and Thornburgh's as well, Pittsburgh Democrats bitterly noted Wofford's 20-plus years as a Philadelphia area resident. Philadelphian Arlen Specter held the remaining Senate seat, and the idea that under the circumstances Western Pennsylvanians would vote to replace native son Heinz with anyone other than fellow Pittsburgher Thornburgh was scoffed at. "We really think we need someone from this area who is tuned to our concerns," fumed the Democratic president of the Pittsburgh City Council.
Four days after being sworn-in, Wofford illustrated his presumed ineptness at his new job. Holding a press conference at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, perpetually threatened with closings by the Pentagon and repeatedly saved by fierce and well-publicized fights from Heinz, Wofford admitted to local reporters that essentially he had no news for them. The reporters, in turn, had to pull teeth from the professorial new senator to even get him to say that oh yes, and by the way, he was opposed to the closing of the Navy Yard.
Questioned later by phone about his Navy Yard appearance, Wofford blandly replied: "We have six months to get our message across."
Into this bleak picture for Democrats arrived two out-of-state and deeply unknown political gunslingers named James Carville and Paul Begala. The two had run Casey's successful campaign for governor in 1986. Their intent with the Wofford campaign, said Begala, was "to raise money and raise hell."
Suddenly, the ground underneath the Sure Thing Thornburgh candidacy began to shift, because of one issue: health care.
Harris Wofford, the long-ago adviser to a long-ago president, the sleepy liberal college president and "egghead" intellectual, began electrifying Pennsylvania voters by zeroing in on health care with all the zeal of a born-again crusader. Scorching the Bush administration, whose leader had not long earlier been possessed of an approval rating in the rarified political air of 90% after the success of the Gulf War, Wofford vowed to "clean up the corridors of power and turn Washington upside down." Accusations of corruption were leveled, with every perceived sin of the Reagan-Bush years laid at Thornburgh's feet, specifically including a charge that the Thornburgh-led Justice Department had played favorites in a prominent fraud case of the day.
The unlikely-star of a populist campaign, Wofford barnstormed Pennsylvania in a relentless attack on Washington "corruption" and its bungling of health care. "It's time to take care of the middle class" exhorted the liberal whose career had previously been identified with the poor.
To the astonishment of Pennsylvania political observers, Thornburgh's lead in the polls, which had begun with a 40% margin over Wofford began to vanish. On October 1, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and WTAE-TV poll showed that Thornburgh's lead over Wofford had shrunk to a stunning 12%. The health care pitch, tied to the issue of corruption in Washington, was hitting home. Energized, the state AFL-CIO swamped its 1 million Pennsylvania members with a get-out-the vote campaign.
On one occasion, Wofford's appearance at a hospital to dramatize his pro-national health care insurance stance drew so many TV cameras that he had to make the tour twice to accommodate all of them. Two days later, now thoroughly on the defensive, Thornburgh showed up at a hospital for his own tour.
With only days to go, polls showed Thornburgh clinging to a 44-41 lead, statistically insignificant. On election day, Wofford won by ten points, electrifying the Democrats and catapulting Carville and Begala into star consultant status. The two were quickly scooped up by a little-known presidential candidate and Arkansas Governor named Bill Clinton who was ignoring the "Bush can't be defeated" mantra of his better known party seniors by, in part, using the health care issue. The rest, as they say, was history. For a time, Senator Harris Wofford even made candidate Clinton's short-list for vice president, finally overtaken by Tennessee Senator Al Gore.
So the question: is Massachusetts Republican Senate candidate Scott Brown the Harris Wofford of 2010?
The similarities between the two are startling.
• Both men were political unknowns statewide among the voting public, Wofford known mainly to party elites, Brown only to state party elites and voters in his state senate district.
• Both men were running in special elections to fill the Senate seats of men who had decades of legendary status within the state, Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts and John Heinz in Pennsylvania.
Both drew opponents who were sitting attorneys general, Martha Coakley the Massachusetts AG and Thornburgh the U.S. Attorney General.
• Both men were given no chance to defeat their much better known opponents.
• Both men set out on a crusade against Washington corruption. Wofford pledged to turn Washington "upside down" and Brown charges "one-party power breeds corruption and arrogance."
• And, most significantly, both men used the health care issue to symbolize that corruption.
It is that last similarity -- health care -- that is so strikingly different. The health care issue in 1991, said Wofford campaign manager Begala at the time, was "strong enough to turn goat spit into gasoline." That goat spit gasoline is even stronger in 2010 -- but for precisely the opposite reason. Unlike the glittering generalities of 1991, after two decades of debate, the last year in particular as well as 1993, the American people fully understand the dire consequences of nationalized health care. The increased taxes, the uncontrollable trillions in spending, the specter of bureaucrats telling doctors what treatments their patients can and cannot have -- and unsurprisingly to everyone but the most partisan Democrat, they furiously oppose it. Brown is doubtless aware of the twists and turns in the health care debate since Wofford's 1991 upset -- and is surely fully aware of what the late radio announcer Paul Harvey might call the rest of the story.
The year after Wofford's 1991 victory, Bill Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush -- although with only 43% of the vote in a three-way race. After he was sworn in, health care was given prime status, with Hillary Clinton running the show in a bid to nationalize health care precisely as Wofford had advocated. The entire Clinton effort, receiving then as now huge headlines across the country, crashed and burned as Americans began to realize the details of what a government controlled health care system actually meant. By November of 1994, Harris Wofford had lost his bid for a full six-year term to conservative GOP Congressman Rick Santorum. Santorum was a decided opponent of national health care.
Now, once again, health care has arisen from the political graveyard, given life by the advent of the Obama administration, a presidency that like that of the even more popular George H.W. Bush, once soared on the warm air of political popularity. Stoked by the zeal of Harry Reid's tentative 60-vote filibuster-proof Senate Democrats, riding on the same wind Wofford rode to victory in 1991, the tables have turned savagely once again, as they did on Wofford and the Clintons in 1994. Change at hand, poll after poll shows that the American people are as fiercely opposed to "Obamacare" as they once warmed to the glittering generalities when Wofford popularized the issue.
Into the breach, ironically using a Wofford-like strategy to achieve the exact opposite policy result, has stepped Scott Brown, vowing that if elected he would halt Obamacare in its tracks. As a result, two new polls show him, again Wofford-like, of having cut a 30-something point deficit to 15% (the Boston Globe) or, incredibly, actually leading by 1 point, 48%-47% according to Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm.
Harris Wofford was 100% for a government-run health care system in 1991. Wofford, Carville and Begala picked up on the issue, tied it to Washington corruption, and delivered it in the fashion of a modern crusade -- and won against all the political odds.
But time moved on. Confronted with specifics, the American people rebelled against the idea in 1994 -- and are in full-scale rebellion yet again in 2010. Among the political casualties before an electoral shot has been fired this year are longtime Senators Dodd of Connecticut and Dorgan of North Dakota. Republicans have already been swept into the governorships of New Jersey and Virginia in 2009.
And in Massachusetts, Scott Brown, win or lose in a January special election, is already sending tremors through the political landscape by becoming the only Republican other than Mitt Romney to make a serious race for the U.S. Senate seat immutably identified with Ted Kennedy and the drive to nationalize health care. By opposing the very issue Harris Wofford used to catapult himself into the U.S. Senate and launch an entirely new era in American politics.
What does the emergence of Scott Brown really mean?
It means that win-lose-or-draw, Scott Brown is already the Harris Wofford of 2010. Like Wofford he has played the role of the little-known, no-chance David going up against a political Goliath with health care as his sling-shot. But unlike Wofford, Brown's sling shot is the promise of effectively stopping government-controlled health care in its tracks, while tying it Wofford-like to corruption -- an argument made easy by the Ben Nelson "Cornhusker Kickback." In doing so Brown is using Wofford's "goat spit gasoline" -- but to light another, very different electoral sea-change in American politics.
It is perhaps worthy of note that one of the more prominent movements to surface in 2009 takes it name from an event that originated in Scott Brown's Massachusetts:
The Boston Tea Party.
The tea partiers won that one, too.