January 2009: Reconsidering the Scott Brown phenomenon, drone war questions, and other observations

A tip of the snowy ski cap to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

REPUBLICAN SCOTT BROWN’S ELECTION TO THE OPEN US SENATE SEAT IN MASSACHUSETTS WASN’T QUITE AS SHOCKING AS SOME PUNDITS WOULD HAVE IT, despite the Bay State’s reputation as a true-blue, liberal Democratic stronghold.

In the past, the Massachusetts electorate has opted for divided government, electing budget-conscious Republican governors (e.g., William Weld, Mitt Romney) to counterbalance tax-and-spend Democrats in the state legislature.

In the special election for the Senate seat, Brown’s reform message appealed to many voters disgusted at the perceived arrogance and entitlement of Democratic politicians on Beacon Hill and in Washington. Brown understood these populist sentiments. When CNN’s David Gergen asked Brown during the crucial final senatorial debate whether he was willing to “sit in Teddy Kennedy’s seat” and block health care reform, Brown responded:

Well, with all due respect it’s not the Kennedys’ seat, and it’s not the Democrats’ seat, it’s the people’s seat. And they have the chance to send somebody down there who is an independent voter, and an independent thinker and going to look out for the best interests of the people of Massachusetts.

Brown stressed his independence during the campaign. While he didn’t disguise his center-right positions on national security issues, government spending, and the Obama health care plan, Brown was careful to note that he supported the status quo on abortion and gay marriage (legal in Massachusetts). Brown’s mainstream views on social issues matched those of independents, the largest group of voters in the state.

It’s true that Brown’s Democratic opponent, Martha Coakley, ran a spectacularly inept campaign, coming across as a chilly elitist with no political instincts (offending Catholics and Red Sox fans with dismissive comments in the last weeks of the contest). Former Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle had the best line about Coakley’s sorry performance: “She has approached the public with the demeanor of a substitute teacher with little interest in her students’ lives.” Yet even a more competent Democrat candidate would have been hard-pressed to beat the charismatic Brown.

THE BROWN-COAKLEY RACE HIGHLIGHTED CONTINUED PROBLEMS WITH THE ACCURACY OF POLITICAL POLLING. The founding director of the Associated Press polling unit, Mike Mokrzycki, suggested that Brown’s surprising numbers in pre-election polls might be inflated by the willingness of his supporters to answer pollster’s questions. Mokrzycki thought Coakley’s “silent supporters” might close that gap when real ballots were cast on Election Day. As it happened, there was no late surge for Coakley.

Mokrzycki’s theory conflicted with recent polling trends; it’s been conservatives who have been reluctant to divulge their political opinions to pollsters in what has been dubbed the Shy Tory Factor. As Mokrzycki conceded, non-response rates for telephone polls has dropped below 10% and a response rate greater than 20% is “extraordinarily good,” so any segment of the electorate that is refusing to participate can skew poll results. Mokrzycki and other professional pollsters claim they are still drawing properly-weighted random samples and their findings haven’t been distorted. Recent electoral history would suggest otherwise.

THE ACLU HAS QUESTIONED THE LEGAL BASIS FOR PRESIDENT OBAMA’S USE OF PREDATOR DRONES, a challenge that I predicted was imminent in an essay for Washington Decoded (“Drone Wars“). In a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed January 14, the ACLU asked for data on the targeted killings by drone, seeking to find out “when, where and against whom drone strikes can be authorized, and how the United States ensures compliance with international laws relating to extrajudicial killings.”

Expect more of these challenges to come from the Left and members of the international law community. How the Justice Department responds will be fascinating, for the Obama Administration’s legal approach to the war on terror has been confused and riddled with contradictions.

IS IT POSSIBLE TO PREDICT, IN ADVANCE, WHO WILL BE A GREAT TEACHER? Amanda Ripley, in a fascinating Atlantic Monthly piece (“What Makes a Great Teacher“) looks at the data collected by Teach for America on teacher effectiveness. What Teach for America found are the qualities that make for great teachers include: a history of perseverance, a zest for life, and a track record of leadership and achievement.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM COME FROM IRISH ORATOR, STATEMAN, AND POLITICAL PHILOSOPHER EDMUND BURKE (1729-1797): “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

Copyright © 2010 Jefferson Flanders
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