The Limits of Scott Brown

The main lesson people are taking away from Scott Brown’s relatively strong showing in the polls is that Democrats are facing major headwinds as we turn the corner toward the 2010 midterm campaign. And that’s all accurate enough. I do, however, think it’s also worth making a different point. Namely that Brown finds himself running in a winnable race, and yet he’s overwhelmingly likely to lose.

At the end of the day, it’s hardly impossible for a Republican to win statewide in Massachusetts. Mitt Romney won in 2002. Paul Cellucci won in 1998. And William Weld won in 1990 and 1994. What’s more, Weld almost beat John Kerry in 1996. There hasn’t been an open Senate seat in Massachusetts in forever, and it’s hard to beat incumbents who aren’t hit by scandal or something, but in the more open fields of gubernatorial politics the Bay State Republicans have done quite well. But the formula for winning as a Republican in Massachusetts is pretty clear — you want to be independent from the machine, and generally for lower taxes and less regulation than your Democratic opponent, but also decidedly not as right-wing as the kind of guys the GOP runs for Senate in Alabama.

And Brown’s just not doing that. He’s close enough to Coakley that you’ve got to believe he really could win if he would find a signature issue on which to demonstrate his independence. He could be a consistent libertarian, who’s for low taxes, less regulation, gun rights, but also gay equality and minimal restrictions on abortion. Or he could espouse green conservatism and say he’s generally on the right but wants to back a cap-and-trade program. Or he could think of something else. But instead he seems to have thought of . . . nothing at all besides putting a slightly moderate spin on orthodox conservative views.

There’s just no reason to think this will work. Mitt Romney couldn’t have won with this strategy. Nor could Paul Cellucci. Nor could Bill Weld. The obvious thing to do would have been to follow in those guys’ footsteps, but Brown’s not doing it. And this kind of ideological inflexibility is the best way for a party to squander a very favorable electoral landscape.