Earthquakes, tragic and political

The disastrous earthquake in Haiti reportedly left up to 200,000 people dead and millions homeless or injured. Such a tragedy serves to remind us all how lucky we are, notwithstanding the minor inconveniences of everyday life and the economic issues associated with a recession. The response of the United States and other countries in sending aid and raising funds was impressive, although the physical limitations of having one major airport without air traffic control initially and sharing an island with another nation that closed its borders to Haiti years ago were an education in geography in themselves.The earthquake is a sobering reminder of the fragility of life and an encouraging reminder of the continued commonality that all people have when a tragedy occurs.*****The victory of Republican Scott Brown over Attorney General Martha Coakley in the special election for the Massachusetts U.S. Senate seat formerly occupied by the late Ted Kennedy for 47 years, widely was reported as a political “earthquake.”This was considered such for several reasons, including the fact that Kennedy had held the seat as a liberal Democrat and advocate of health-care reform and other causes. In addition, that particular seat had not been held by a Republican since John F. Kennedy defeated Henry Cabot Lodge in 1952, and Massachusetts had not elected a Republican to the United States Senate since Edward Brooke was elected in 1972.Why did this happen? What does it mean?Largely, it happened because Coakley assumed and believed the common wisdom that the seat belonged to the Democratic Party, and all she had to do was appear on the ballot to be assured election. At the outset, all of the commentators agreed with her and apparently she did not campaign aggressively.Also, Coakley came across as stiff, tight-mouthed and “preachy” in her television ads. As many commented, “To see her was not to like her.”Reportedly a competent prosecutor and attorney general, Coakley was not viewed positively, even by those in her own party.Massachusetts is an interesting state demographically, with three times as many registered Democrats as Republicans, while independents outnumber both. Therefore, the voting inclination of independents is key to any election, which probably explains why many of the recent governors of Massachusetts have been Republicans.On election night, polls indicated that one-third of the Democrats who voted chose Brown. Add that to the split of the independents and the assumed almost unanimous vote by Republicans for their candidate and the victory was assured.Turnout was fairly strong, following visits by former President Clinton and President Obama to shore up the faltering Coakley campaign, which many observers (including me) thought would energize the base, get out the vote and result in a Coakley victory in the end. That did not happen.On election night, Coakley was gracious, Brown enthusiastic (although probably in trouble with his daughters) and President Obama called to congratulate the winner and comfort the loser.What does it mean?First, no one should assume anything in politics. Second, as Brown repeatedly pointed out, a Senate seat does not belong to a party or a family but to the “people.” Third, voters do not like to be told what to do and will react against it. Fourth, Brown’s continuously positive campaign and refusal to go negative in the face of a negative barrage against him probably served him well — an encouraging sign in politics, where negative advertising usually is credited with success.What does this mean for the nation? Democrats lose their 60th vote, and what that means for policy, especially national health-care reform, is yet to be seen, but it probably will not be good for President Obama.Other initiatives in the Senate will not be assured of a “filibuster-proof” majority for the Democrats, either.Maybe this will result in Senators of the two parties starting to talk to each other seriously about policy.There is a caution that the Republicans should heed during their euphoria and predictions that this is a precursor of results in November. Where the Republicans could have pointed to a narrow loss by Brown in Massachusetts as a shot across Democrats’ bow, the victory, if it results in gridlock in Washington, will allow the Democrats to claim that the Republican victory resulted in “do nothing government” and allow their candidates to run this fall as insurgent outsiders against the Republicans’ blocking action, whereas they could not have done that with the 60-seat majority.This may be sophisticated reasoning, but it is something the Republicans should consider in deciding how to approach policy matters the rest of this year.All that aside, the Brown victory was a shock, refreshing and inserted an interesting new political personality on the national scene.Political observers love havoc!Brad Cook is a shareholder in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green and heads its government relations and estate planning groups. He also serves as secretary of the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire.