The will of the people



As if there aren't enough political and legislative cliffhangers these days, we now have the makings of a potentially juicy subplot in the normally blue state of Massachusetts.

Just suppose - because it's not an impossibility - that the Republicans rock the political world eight days from now, by winning the special U.S. Senate election and thus catapulting, into Edward Kennedy's former chair, a heretofore obscure state legislator named Scott Brown, who thus becomes the 41st (and decisive) thumbs-down vote against health care reform.

And just suppose - because this is indeed the legal timetable - that Brown's upset victory on Jan. 19 is not officially certified by the state of Massachusetts until Jan. 29, because there's a 10-day waiting period for all absentee and military ballots. This would mean that Brown could not be officially sworn in, as the 41st Republican senator, until Jan. 29 at the earliest.

And now let's suppose that, during this 10-day waiting period, the House and Senate Democrats down in Washington manage to reconcile their respective health reform bills. If that happens, both chambers could be called upon to vote speedily on the final historic package. And, as we know, that package will die in the Senate unless all 58 Democratic senators and the two independent senators hang together to vote Yes for final passage, thus thwarting any threatened Republican filibuster.

Kennedy's old Senate seat is currently held by former Democratic national chairman Paul Kirk, who has been warming it for the winner of the Jan. 19 special election (presumably, barring an upset, the winner would be Democrat Martha Coakley). But since the final vote on health reform might take place during that 10-day Massachusetts waiting period, Kirk would get the chance to say Yes or No. And indeed, last Friday, Kirk said that he would vote Yes: "It would be my responsibility as a United States senator, representing the people and understanding Sen. Kennedy's agenda...I'd be pleased to vote for the bill."

Which brings us to our brain-teaser:

If Republican Scott Brown wins the Massachusetts election, after having explicitly vowed on the campaign trail to become the 41st naysaying vote on health reform ("I can stop a lot of this stuff in its tracks"), should the Senate Democrats bow to the will of the Bay State's voters and allow Brown to take his seat and cast that crucial vote? In other words, if Brown pulls an electoral upset, how could seat-warmer Paul Kirk possibly make the case that a Yes vote was synonymous with "representing the people?"

Nobody has a clue about what will happen next Tuesday, least of all the pollsters. It's typically difficult to determine who will actually show up to vote in a special election conducted in the dead of winter. The latest survey sponsored by The Boston Globe shows Coakley (the state attorney general) defeating Brown by 15 percentage points - which makes a certain amount of sense, given the fact that Coakley is a high-profile popular Democrat, and that registered Democrats in Massachusetts outnumber registered Republicans by a margin of 3-1. But another survey, conducted by Public Policy Polling via robo-calls, paints a very different picture. PPP has Brown leading Coakley by one percentage point - with the help of landslide support from independents, the largest constituency in the state electorate. And the thing is, PPP is a Democratic survey firm.      

So the outcome of this race will hinge on the enthusiasm factor. Can Brown sufficiently galvanize enough Republican-friendly independents with his vow to "restore checks and balances?" Can Brown tap voter anger with his new charge that, in the event of an upset GOP victory, Paul Kirk and the Democratic leaders intend to "ignore the results of a free election and steal this Senate vote from the people of Massachusetts"? Or will Massachusetts Democrats be able to pull off what should be a cinch, driving their base to the ballot box with an emotional pitch for the fulfillment of Ted Kennedy's legacy?

Let this much be said: If the Democrats can't win an election in a state that hasn't sent a Republican to the Senate since 1972, if indeed the most motivated voters turn out to be opponents of health reform, then seat-warmer Kirk has no business casting the 60th Yes vote in favor of health reform. If Kirk and the Democrats want to invoke the will of the people, they really should earn it first.