Scott Brown Win a Nihilist Moment?

Scott Brown Win The special election to fill the Massachusetts Senate seat vacated by the passing of Teddy Kennedy is ongoing, with most expecting a win by Republican Scott Brown.  Andrew Sullivan sees this as the death knell of American politics.

I can see no alternative scenario but a huge – staggeringly huge – victory for the FNC/RNC machine tomorrow. They crafted a strategy of total oppositionism to anything Obama proposed a year ago. Remember they gave him zero votes on even the stimulus in his first weeks. They saw health insurance reform as Obama’s Waterloo, and, thanks in part to the dithering Democrats, they beat him on that hill. They have successfully channeled all the rage at the massive debt and recession the president inherited on Obama after just one year. If they can do that already, against the massive evidence against them, they have the power to wield populism to destroy any attempt by government to address any actual problems.

This is a nihilist moment, built from a nihilist strategy in order to regain power … to do nothing but wage war against enemies at home and abroad.

This is, to say the least, a wee overreaction to a single, sui generis contest.

The out party is frequently able to focus negative energy in a single, off-cycle race.  And, frankly, the Democrats did themselves no favors in choosing Martha Coakley, who has simply been an awful candidate.  They arrogantly believed that literally anyone carrying the “Democrat” label would be able to hold the seat. They may yet be proven right but it doesn’t look good for them.

As to the rest, the “stimulus” was a huge boondoggle — and one that followed on the heels of two previous “stimulus” packages under President Bush.  Flooding the economy with so much money no doubt helped, but no one thought it was the most effective way of using the money.  And the rump Republican Party in Congress, deservedly decimated in successive elections after failing to live up to their principles, had a renewed belief in fiscal sanity.

Similarly, most of them honestly believed health reform of the type Obama and the Democratic leadership wanted was bad public policy.  Indeed, it’s one of the few issues where there’s still legitimate ideological difference between the two parties.

Certainly, there was also a political calculation by the GOP leadership that providing zero votes on these bills was a way of signaling the depth of the party’s opposition and making the Democrats  “own” the stimulus and the health bills.  But so what?  Politics ain’t beanbag.

As to successfully blaming Obama for the current depths of the recession and the deficit, boo frickin’ hoo.   We always blame the sitting president for the state of the economy.  If you don’t want that, don’t run for the job.

And, frankly, Obama does in fact own much of what has transpired.  People understand that he “inherited” the recession but the fact of the matter is that the unemployment rate is much higher than it was expected to be, even in the projections of Obama’s own team.  Rather than funneling money to people who’ve lost their jobs, he instead bailed out their employers in the mostly vain hope of saving dying industries.   Why shouldn’t he be blamed for that?

Ditto the deficit.  Yes, he inherited a huge one and it was going to get worse in this economy. But the fact of the matter is that he pushed for massive bailouts and stimulus packages, putting the country much further into debt.  We can argue about whether that was a good thing to do under the circumstances — or even whether a President McCain might have done pretty much the same thing — but, again, he was the man at the helm.

There’s a modest populist surge out there, as evidenced by the Tea Party and various other phenomena.  But, as always, most Americans are only peripherally interested in politics.   Right now, Obama is rather unpopular.   Not wildly unpopular, as his predecessor was, but nonetheless one with higher disapproval than approval numbers.   That’s hardly unprecedented for new presidents trying to enact major social changes in a down economy.    See Reagan, Ronald and Clinton, Bill.

Maybe Obama will read a Brown win as a signal to slow down and push through a more modest bill.  Or maybe he’ll indeed “take a combative turn.”  The people will get a chance to send him another signal in November and again two years hence.  I haven’t the slightest clue as to what the mood will be then.

But Andrew should know better than to read so much into a single election, much less a single race.   Too many read Bush’s re-election in 2004 as the beginning of some sort of permanent majority; that faded within months and he got a shellacking in 2006.  Too many read some sort of sea change into Obama’s win fourteen months ago.  The public is fickle and interested mostly in results.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Funny, writing a few minutes ago I wrote:

    I will say this: competition is good for democracy, as is the notion that no one automatically deserves a given seat.

    Of the things that the special election may be, a “nihilist moment” it ain’t.

  2. Dave says:
  3. PD Shaw says:

    Well, we know this was written by Sullivan because he has the hyperbole set at 11 and exhibits general cluelessness about American politics.

  4. yetanotherjohn says:

    Obama has increased the debt more in one year than W. did in 6. Saying that the gop has channeled all the peoples rage on debt by W. to Obama shows an ignorance of the facts.
    As far as nihlism goes, I seem to remember another party that didn’t seem to have any other plan than to vote ‘no’ on confirming judges, fighting the war on terror, etc.
    Despite warnings, the nation chose a inexperienced liberal. Obama ran as a moderate but is governing as a liberal. When the reality of that started to sink in, we have seen the steepest first year decline in presidential approval.
    If you think Coakleys election problems are because the gop is saying ‘no’, then you don’t understand and haven’t seen anything yet.
    The fact is that Obamas health care plan has become unpopular. If democrats really thought that this was because the gop bedazzled the voters, then they should first defend their policy, get the peoples support and then pass it. Just cramming it down peoples throats and then complaining when they choke on it is not how you should govern.

  5. Stan25 says:

    The state of the current economy can be laid at the feet of the Democrats in Congress. They are the ones that started raising the taxes and minimum wage to the current level. It was Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi that engineered the current spending spree that the government is doing, not George Bush. The Dems have been holding the purse strings since January of 2007 and for the last three years. As usual, the clueless media types are blaming the wrong people for the mess we are in.

    Andrew Sullivan can forget about ObamaCare ever getting passed. It is not going to happen no how no way. If he wants it so bad, why don’t he fund the whole ObamaCare bboondoggle out of his pocket. I am sure that he can afford it or he can ask his buddy, George Soros to help.

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    And the rump Republican Party in Congress, deservedly decimated in successive elections after failing to live up to their principles, had a renewed belief in fiscal sanity.

    I think that sentence encapsulates the difference of opinion about the Republican Party in Congress. Is a belief in fiscal sanity a principle or merely a rhetorical principle. My view is that the Republicans in Congress have much the same actual principles as the Democrats in Congress do: obtaining and retaining power. Everything else is just for the rubes.

    Andrew is agonistic if nothing else. I think he’s linking Scott Brown too closely with the Tea Bag movement. I don’t think that Scott Brown or the Republicans are nihilistic but I think there’s a case to be made that the Tea Bag movement is.

    Or perhaps it’s just my own ignorance speaking. Here’s the dictionary definition (the second one) of nihilism:

    a doctrine or belief that conditions in the social organization are so bad as to make destruction desirable for its own sake independent of any constructive program or possibility

    Does the Tea Bag movement have a constructive program? If not and it’s opposed to the “conditions in the social organization”, then it is definitionally nihilistic.

    Again, this may be just my ignorance speaking.

  7. anjin-san says:

    shows an ignorance of the facts.

    Well, its a fact that Bush inherited a SURPLUS from Clinton, yet left an economic disaster for his successor.

  8. Wayne says:

    Clinton left Bush a recession as well but Bush turned it around in six months.

    Obama was a Senator, which spending bill did he vote against besides the military? As President or Senator what spending cuts has he proposed besides the military?

  9. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Yeah, Anjin, a surplus based upon a continuing bubble which disappeared. No real dollars just speculation. Talk about twisting facts. You are an expert. Watch what happens in Mass. Better yet, have someone rational relay the information to you. Make sure they get a signature so you cannot say you did not get it. Cause you surely do not “get it”.

  10. Triumph says:

    I have never been as excited by a politician than I am about Scott Brown.

    The guy has it all: charisma, intelligence, experience, patriotism, and war heroism.

    The guy has “President” written all over him. Unlike the current occupant of the White House, Brown is a real American.

    Brown embodies all of the best qualities of Sarah Palin and Richard Cheney and will undoubtedly rise to become a national leader who will lead the charge to clean up B. Hussein’s mess.

  11. Rick Almeida says:

    For better or for worse, I disagree that a Brown victory ends the chance for health care reform.

    The Senate has already passed health care reform legislation. All the House has to do is pass the identical bill, and then once the President signs it, it’s law.

    Now, I have no idea if the House leadership has the political will/chutzpah/cojones to do this, but it’s entirely feasible.

  12. mw says:

    Sullivan has completely lost the plot (I think that is a Brit expression).

  13. sam says:


    As to the rest, the “stimulus” was a huge boondoggle

    I think the jury’s still out on that. According to the CBO, as of November, 2009, three-fourths of the stimulus had not been spent. I’d hold off the requiem until the bulk of the money has flowed in.

  14. Rick, it all depends on how successful Madame Speaker can be in getting enough members of her caucus to fall on their electoral swords for her benefit.

  15. Dr. Schuler, it is the Tea Party Movement. Calling it the Tea Bag movement is a gratuitious slur.

  16. Triumph, as a state senator with two years experience in the US Senate as of the next election (assuming he wins today), perhaps he is of greater presidential timber than you imagine.

  17. As to the Tea Party’s constructive program, I think they refer to it as the US Constitution.

  18. Gekkobear says:

    “Remember they gave him zero votes on even the stimulus in his first weeks.”

    I don’t remember that at all. I remember 2 or 3 Seantors voting for the stimulus boondoggle… who remembers wrong?

    “The Senate approved the measure 60-38 with three GOP moderates providing crucial support…”

    Weird, MSNBC reporting from Feb 14th shows 3 votes for it… and I recall a few votes for it.

    I’m sure Sullivan is correct, and my memory (and all the online history, vote tallies, and reporting) are wrong. But it seems weird that MSNBC never corrected their reporting on this, seeing as no Republicans voted for the stimulus and everything.

  19. Gekkobear says:

    Does the Tea Bag movement have a constructive program?

    Posted by Dave Schuler

    I’m not sure? How about the Cleveland Steamer movement? The Dirty Sanchez movement? Rhe Rusty Trombone movement?

    Or the more popular foot fetishists, or S&M movements?

    If you were asking about the Tea Party activists who have tried to style themselves after the Boston Tea Party, I might have an answer.

    But having never rubbed or bounced my scrotum off the head or face of another, or been in the receiving end of this activity; I can’t really speak to tea bagging or the tea bag movement.

    I am curious if the Cleveland Steamer movement will ever find traction… although I rather hope it doesn’t come to think of it.

    Do you have any information to add on any of these Dave? Or is Tea Bagging your one vice?

  20. Dave Schuler says:

    As I said in my previous comment, I speak from ignorance. Does the movement (whatever it is called) have a positive program?

  21. Wayne says:

    How about adhering to the Constitution? Including but not limited to freedom of speech, right to bear arms, and powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

    How about less taxes and government spending? Are they not positive programs\principles to strive for?

  22. Does the movement (whatever it is called) have a positive program?

    Just can’t let go, much less apologize, eh?

  23. An Interested Party says:

    My my my…some people are real touchy about how this Tea whatever movement is called…funny thing, though, some of these same people love to constantly complain about the “Democrat” Party…fancy that…

  24. steve says:

    “Clinton left Bush a recession as well but Bush turned it around in six months.”

    By running up the deficit. It was also the most anemic recovery in recent history. Job growth was slow. if you were not in the top 1%, wages were stagnant.

    “Obama has increased the debt more in one year than W. did in 6”

    Interesting. I read economics quite a bit. Can you back this up with real numbers? Please note that you claim Obama is responsible.

    Really, I think Republicans have become innumerate. Other than Manzi, who uses real numbers?


  25. Tano says:

    “he instead bailed out their employers in the mostly vain hope of saving dying industries. ”

    What industries did Obama try, in vain, to save?

    “Obama is rather unpopular…. one with higher disapproval than approval numbers.”

    Actually there is only one pollster, out of the dozen or so that poll approvals, that show Obama with a net negative. The consensus seems to be that he is about +5 or so – remarkably stable actually, for the past 5 months.

  26. Rick Jacobs says:

    The same thing happened a few years back here in Maryland, another Democratic seat. The local Democratic party tried to shove Kathleen Kennedy Townsend down our throats after the disaster that was the Glendening/Townsend administration. The people of Maryland, mostly Democratic, went out an elected a Republican governor. Maybe not the best move, but it did prove to the Democratic party in MD, that just being a Democrat is not enough to win.

  27. An Interested Party says:

    Maybe not the best move, but it did prove to the Democratic party in MD, that just being a Democrat is not enough to win.

    As Martin O’Malley showed to Bobby Ehrlich just four short years later…perhaps a similar fate will await Brown in 2012…

  28. James —- could you outline a “more modest” healthcare bill that could get 20 GOP votes in the House, and 10 in the Senate that is deficit neutral over 10 years, covers 15 million people (half of what the current Senate bill does) and strengthens Medicare finances?

    Easiest way to get there is to expand Medicaid to 150% FPL, cut back on Medicare Advantage to pay for it, shrink but not eliminate the donut hole in Medicare Part-D to give seniors some cookies and pay for that with a 1% increase in top end marginal rates (maybe create a new millionaire’s bracket) and an excise tax on high end health plans cost growth rates.

    Nothing there about exchanges, nothing there about cost controls in Medicare, nothing there about subsidies. Bare bones coverage expansion without cost-controls or death panels.

    That plan above is way to the right of what Romney passed in Massachusetts and what Brown thought was hunky dory last week.

    Could you get 10 GOP Senators to vote for it?

    I don’t think so, they see the pay-offs as being far more positive by saying no and counting on the fact that no one besides geeks understand the filibuster rules.