The Scott Brown Era


Noam Scheiber had an interesting piece earlier this week and a followup blog post about how Scott Brown, in virtue of being less conservative than 40 other Senators, is now the key man in American politics.

Something that struck me about this is how fleeting the Scott Brown Era is likely to be. After all, Republicans are dead-certain to pick up Senate seats in North Dakota and Arkansas and favored in 5 or 6 more good pickup opportunities. Once that happens, who’s really going to care about Scott Brown? The action will shift to Mark Kirk or Charlie Crist or someone else. Or else there will be no action. Or if there is action, it’s going to take a kind of big picture legislative entrepreneurship that Brown has not manifested a taste for.

Scheiber writes “that Democrats underestimate Brown at their peril.” And in some ways I think that’s true. He seems to be a good politician. What’s more, the successful careers of Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins demonstrate pretty conclusively that Republican politicians can stay overwhelmingly popular in New England via fairly minimal gestures toward compromise. At the same time, formidable as they are as politicians, I don’t think anyone needs to live in fear of underestimating Snowe or Collins as visionary political leaders. They’ve never used their pivotal status to reshape the national agenda or build center-out legislative coalitions or anything like that. Sometimes they agree to trim something down a bit (Bush tax cuts, Obama stimulus) and sometimes they refuse to vote for something at all (Affordable Care Act) but this is a form of difference-splitting small ball politics. And Brown, based on what one can tell from his time in the Senate thus far, seems very content to follow along in this mold.

In that sense, I don’t think anyone’s underestimating him at all. DC political culture is driven by power, and those who work themselves into pivotal legislative positions have power and therefore they attract status and attention. But it’s possible to use this power in bold ways that attempt to move the ball forward, and it’s possible to use this power in trivial ways. For several congresses in a row now the pivotal members have tended to come from the latter school of thought and it’s a problem for the country.