03/24/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Scott Brown Knew In 2010 and Barack Obama Knew In 2008

This past Tuesday night, the politics of positioning beat the politics of branding. As it frequently does. Scott Brown figured it would. As Barack Obama did in 2008.

Here's something to keep in mind amidst all the hype, hysteria, and hubris surrounding last Tuesday's Massachusetts special election. But for one of the worst Democratic campaigns in American political history, you wouldn't be hearing any of this.

No sweeping claims about a sea change in politics. No clashing claims of diametrically opposed ideological realignments. Oh, and no death knells on all sides for national health care reform.

Senator-elect Scott Brown declares victory.

Now we're seeing, as if we hadn't before, how dysfunctional our political and media cultures have become. We have competing polls from left and right making very different claims about why Scott Brown won the Senate seat held by Kennedys since 1952. Some say a backlash against health care reform and increased government spending won it for Brown. Others say that Brown won because Obama and Democrats didn't go far enough.

The "Message of Massachusetts?" A right-wing resurgence! Social democracy! Cautious centrism!

Everyone is free to make these claims because ... There is NO exit poll to prove anything one way or the other. And why is that? Few considered there was a real race until it was too late to organize a proper exit polling operation.

And the mainstream media didn't do an exit poll as a matter of course -- as they should have -- because the corporate bean counters who run things now wanted to save money. All the better, I suppose, to allow folks to make wildly different claims on their shows without any challenge.

While Martha Coakley associated herself with politicians, Brown surrounded himself with popular cultural figures, such as legendary quarterback Doug Flutie.

Yet here is what we do know. Scott Brown, an arguably moderate Republican, ran a campaign geared toward the independents who make up nearly half the Bay State electorate, far outnumbering registered Democrats, who in turn outnumber registered Republicans.

To do this, he ran a campaign of positioning. He de-emphasized his Republicanism, casting himself as a regular guy in a pickup truck. (Though he is actually a real estate lawyer who went to tony Tufts, a former Cosmo centerfold married to a TV newscaster.) He appeared either on his own hook, or with popular cultural figures from the sports world.

While effective in his regular guy persona, Brown was not exactly a rocket scientist. Here he proclaims his daughters to be "available."

He did not associate himself with Republican politicians. He was greatly helped in this by virtue of the fact that he had no serious opponent in the Republican primary, so he didn't have to advertise his Republican positions in order to win the nomination.

In fact, I'm told that the first time he appeared with former Governor Mitt Romney, a backer of his legislative career, was when Romney popped on stage election night to laud the senator-elect right before Brown gave his decidedly uneven victory speech.

Brown cast himself as a populist, talking against big interests and Washington dealmaking, tapping into anger about the Wall Street bailouts. Which of course his own party backed to the hilt.

He talked about being tough on Islamic terrorism, though most of what he was talking about Obama is already doing, which Coakley failed to point out. The differences being on the closing of Guantanamo Bay and civilian trials vs. military tribunals.

He talked against the national health care reform bill, which has been so muddied by tedious months of negotiation and horse trading its virtues are more than obscured by its demerits. And it was especially easy for him to do this, because as a state senator he actually backed Massachusetts' own near universal health care program. But the fact of Massachusetts health care gave him cover among the many voters who backed the national bill.

Here Brown plays up his regular guy persona and populist positioning in this ad responding to Coakley's belated attacks.

Brown got a total free ride from his Democratic opposition while he did all this.

While Brown pursued the politics of positioning, Martha Coakley stuck with the politics of branding. She was the Democratic nominee for the seat held by the late Ted Kennedy for nearly half a century. Closely associated with unpopular Governor Deval Patrick, she appeared with Democratic politicians and promised to carry on the Kennedy seat. (Which would make sense, as California Governor and Kennedy in-law Arnold Schwarzenegger points out, if she were a Kennedy.)

Coakley coasted through the holidays, a few weeks before the election. While Brown, buoyed by private polling showing him 13 points back and rising, was appearing feverishly around the state, Coakley did nothing. Asked by a reporter why she wasn't doing more, she asked what was she supposed to do, shake hands in the cold outside Fenway Park, the Massachusetts sporting mecca where Brown had done just that before a big hockey match.

In other words, Coakley relied on the politics of branding. She was the Democrat, running for a seat held by a Democrat ever since a hustling JFK took it from the sedate Brahmin Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. in 1952.

She also lost the debates to Brown (who is not exactly a rocket scientist), didn't articulate concern about security in the wake of the barely averted 12/25 attack, and didn't pick up on populist concerns about big interests being too rich and powerful. Which, as the state attorney general, she was perfectly positioned to do. Had she paid any attention at all to her own positioning.

Here Brown comes up with a clever riposte when debate moderator David Gergen, a quintessential Washington media establishmnent figure, called it "the Kennedy seat."

And the only memorable things she said in the campaign were miscues. The Fenway Park remark, and an odd little trope abot Boston Red Sox legend Curt Schilling being a Yankees fan. Oh, and expressing her admiration for two New York Yankee players who'd beaten the Red Sox. Yikes!

Coakley let Brown run till the very end with all the advantages of being a Republican -- money poured in from around the country to his campaign -- and none of its disadvantages. Brown established his positioning in the campaign without any challenge. Not until the final week of the campaign, when Democrats finally figured out that Coakley was in serious trouble.

Of course, this isn't merely Coakley's fault. The entire Democratic political leadership of Massachusetts, from Governor Patrick and Senator John Kerry on down, were asleep at the switch, totally unaware of what was going on in their own state. Senate Democrats, including their campaign chief, New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, clearly weren't paying attention. The Democratic National Committee. Whatever happened to Democratic National Chairman Tim Kaine? Is he in a witness protection program somewhere? And, yes, the Obama White House. No one was able to monitor what was going on in Massachusetts? Don't know anybody in Boston?

Incidentally, the greatest advantage that Scott Brown had -- which strangely (or not) goes unmentioned in all the media cacophony -- is that he had, essentially, no primary. When Andrew Card, who was former President George W. Bush's chief of staff, decided not to run -- news flash, he would have lost -- that left Brown with only an even less well-known opponent.

This enabled Brown to run as a de facto independent rather than a Republican. Had he had to run in a Republican primary, he would have been defined in partisan terms, not to mention beaten up, before he got to the run-off. As it was, he was free to craft his identity on his own hook, avoiding Republican identifiers that would have turned off independents and developing a persona to counter what voters didn't like about the governing Democratic Party in Massachusetts.

President Barack Obama stepped up his criticism of Wall Street on Thursday with a far-reaching proposal for tougher regulation of the biggest banks.

So, in the aftermath of this historic debacle, Barack Obama is pivoting to his populist positioning. Which is a large part of what got him elected in 2008. He already knows the advantage of positioning over branding, having taken advantage of that in winning over the Clinton brand in the Democratic primaries (remember the inevitable Hillary, who ran that way?)and the Republican brand in the general election.

In the wake of this eminently avoidable loss, Obama is striking tones from his 2008 campaign which were oddly ignored by Coakley. Obama has been pinned down for months, painstakingly trying to work a dysfunctional system in Washington that is dominated by special interest lobbyists on one of the most complex and historically change-resistant issues of all, health care. The negativity and compromise have added up.

Last week before the Boston Tea Party, probably seeing it coming, Obama rolled out a tax on big banks bailed out as part of the controversial Wall Street rescue, financial institutions that just paid big bonuses to their executives. Yesterday morning, he moved to restore some of the financial regulations that were undone by Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

Then the U.S. Supreme Court handed him another opportunity, with its aggressive decision -- on a 5 to 4 vote -- to allow corporations (and unions, which have less money) to spend unlimited amounts to influence federal elections.

Ironically, Coakley had the ideal office with which to emphasize a stance against rich and powerful interests gaming the system against the average American. She's the state attorney general, an office in which it is possible to compile an impressive record on that score. She could even have brought suit during her campaign for the Senate to upstage anything that Scott Brown, a state senator, could do on his own.

She failed to do so, thus allowing Brown to seize the mantle of champion of the angry and disaffected. It helped Brown greatly that he was not a plutocrat himself, though hardly the regular guy he made himself out to be.

Which illustrates why, for example, billionaire ex-eBay CEO Meg Whitman, seeking to purchase the California governorship, is not Scott Brown and Jerry Brown, the aggressive Democratic attorney general seeking another shot at the governorship, is not Martha Coakley. But that's a matter for another time.

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