1. No wonder the White House was surprisingly nice in its first public statements about Scott Brown’s victory in the Massachusetts campaign. After all, Brown’s victory just handed Obama what he needs to win his own campaign for reelection as president in 2012.

From Truman to Clinton, embattled presidents have seen a path to reelection by running against the Senate and House. Of course, that’s usually because those legislatures are in the hands of the other party. But Obama now has a chance to run against an obstructive Senate that contains”oh, the shame of it”less than a supermajority of his own party. It’s the best of both worlds.

Some Clintonesque triangulation might take place, I guess, with the lack of 60 senators requiring the Democrats to move a little toward the middle”and thus ease, a little, their political burden. But the real benefit here for Obama is that he has something to run against, which he has always been good at, rather than something to run for, which his lack of leadership on health care shows he has always been bad at.

More, with the gift of an obstructionist Senate”an obstructionist Senate minority, of all wonderful political gifts”he has ten months in which he can pass large parts of his agenda while bemoaning the naysayers who thwart him. Thank Scott Brown for this possibility: We might even be spared some of the anti-bank, anti-Wall Street, anti-business demagoguery that has been looming in Obama’s recent rhetoric. The president now has something else to run against.

And after the November elections? Say I, without any numerical support whatsoever: Every Republican victory in the 2010 Senate races is worth another percentage point for Obama in his own 2012 run. Scott Brown in Massachusetts = Republican 2010 Senate gains at +1 = Obama’s popular 2012 vote at +1%.

2.
The person who handed Scott Brown his victory? Ted Kennedy. Oh sure, Brown campaigned brilliantly, Martha Coakley campaigned foolishly, and the national interest in the race worked with perfect timing for the Republicans: Early enough to bring in good money for Brown, but late enough that the national forces didn’t have time to destroy him.

But Kennedy was the key. As a friend pointed out to me in an email yesterday, the possibility of defeat for national health-care reform is the fault of its biggest champion. If he hadn’t insisted on holding onto his Senate seat until his death”if instead he’d resigned and thrown his weight behind his own choice of successor”the Democrats wouldn’t have lost his seat.

Then, too, there’s the fact that he wrecked the Democrat party in Massachusetts in some small but telling ways. His perpetual possession of one of the state’s Senate seats removed a goal from the scrum of state politics. The up-and-comers, the ambitious ones rising with every generation, had one fewer place at which they could aim. In the real calculus of a political party”the determination, half voting and half backroom politicking, of who gets what position”Massachusetts was perpetually one musical chair short.

For that matter, by the people he promoted and the people he listened to, Ted Kennedy also helped convert the party into the coalition that went down to defeat against Scott Brown. The grievance activists and the winners of the long march through the institutions and the white-collar unionists and the bureaucrats: Martha Coakley didn’t believe she was out of touch with her state”for the obvious reason that every wheel and power in her party seemed just like her. The Democratic party in Massachusetts had been allowed to drift away from its base because a U.S. Senate seat”one of the key places where political parties are brought down to earth by elections”was taken perpetually out of play by Ted Kennedy’s entitlement.

3. Republican disarray and tea-party demands for doctrinal purity have been the tropes of much political commentary over the past year”reaching a peak, accurately enough, during the New York congressional race in November, in which the Republican candidate ended up withdrawing from the race, driven out by a conservative who lost a winnable race to the Democrats.

But the rallying behind the entirely middle-of-the-road Scott Brown suggests that conservatives are, in fact, willing to accept doctrinal impurity”if the candidates have a chance of winning. The conservatives didn’t support the liberal Republican Dede Scozzafava in NY-23, because they actually thought the right-wing Doug Hoffman could win. In Massachusetts, they went with somebody not perfectly conservative because, again, they thought he could win. Looks like a big tent, yes?

4. But big tents get erected, in the real world of politics, not by theory but by necessity. The Democrats’ tent in Massachusetts proved much weaker than most of us had thought, in part because it hadn’t had to stand up to a harsh wind in decades. And the national victories of the Democrats in 2006 and 2008 meant that Republicans had to huddle together, just to find a little shelter.

All of which suggests a rule for Republicans for the rest of the 2010 elections: Don’t create a theory for the tent till the tent gets built. Scott Brown didn’t win by putting forward a program. He ran by opposing the Democrats’ program”and a systematic program, an insistence that all voters share the ideal, would have been counterproductive. Voter discontent will carry Republicans to some gains in November, and the campaigns should be run as oppositions”oppositions to Obama and the Democrats’s extreme demands for doctrinal purity in their own ranks.

After the 2010 elections, sure, Republicans will need to decide what they actually want to enact. But there will be plenty of time to define the tent once we learn who’s inside it.

Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things .

Articles by Joseph Bottum

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