Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

In retrospect, the election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts probably shouldn’t be all that suprising. His opponent in the race, Martha Coakley, ran one of the worst campaigns in the history of electoral politics, turning off the two biggest constituinces in the state—Catholics and Red Sox fans. But what I do find shocking is the level of enthusiasm and support that Brown, a liberal Republican, is receiving from stalwart conservatives.

Many of the same people who regularly excoriate liberal Republican Senators like Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins unconditionally embraced Brown—even helped him raise money. The ardor is especially peculiar when you consider that only a few months ago these folks supported a third-party challenger against Republican Dede Scozzafava in the special election campaign for the 23rd Congressional District of New York. This is particularly odd since, as political scientist Boris Shor argues, Brown is more liberal than the despised Scozzafava :

So how do we compare Brown to other state legislators, or more generally to other politicians across the country? My research, along with Princeton’s Nolan McCarty, allows us to make precisely these comparisons. Essentially, I use the entirety of state legislative voting records across the country, and I make them comparable by calibrating them through Project Votesmart’s candidate surveys.

By doing so, I can estimate Brown’s ideological score very precisely. It turns out that his score is –0.17, compared with [Scozzafava’s] score of 0.02. Liberals have lower scores; conservatives higher ones.

Brown’s score puts him at the 34th percentile of his party in Massachusetts over the 1995-2006 time period. In other words, two thirds of other Massachusetts Republican state legislators were more conservative than he was. This is evidence for my claim that he’s a liberal even in his own party. What’s remarkable about this is the fact that Massachusetts Republicans are the most, or nearly the most, liberal Republicans in the entire country!

GOP party loyalists naturally prefer any candidate with an “R” after their name, whether they be liberal or conservative, since in the legislature, party loyalty often trumps ideology. As the Washington Post ‘s Ezra Klein pointed out yesterday ,

We live in an age of party discipline. Even the most heterodox legislators — think Ben Nelson or Olympia Snowe — tend to fall in with their party when the chips are down. In this world, Republican legislators are Republicans and Democratic legislators are Democrats. What they personally believe is not a very good guide to how they generally vote.

This is enough to explain the motives of Republicans, but what about those conservatives who (like me) are conservatives first and only caucus with the GOP when it suits their interest? What accounts for their embrace of Brown?

Obviously, taking the seat held by Ted Kennedy—”the liberal lion of the senate”—has a strong appeal, as does the fact that Brown’s win will likely stop the advance of Obamacare. It could be, as William Upton at The American Conservative , explains, simply a rational application of game theory:

Supporting Brown in Massachusetts or Hoffman in New York really just models a basic prisoners dilemma. We must simply go with the most conservative candidate offered, that remains electorally competative. Brown is more conservative than Coakley, Hoffman was more conservative than Scozzafava and Democrat Bill Owens. In the case of Massachusetts, the electorate is liberal (unlike the NY-23), and conservatives have rightly understood that the likely hood of a conservative winning in the mold of the late Senators Taft or Goldwater just is not going to happen.

I think Upton’s analysis is correct and that in electoral politics you generally have to make the best of bad choices. A liberal like Brown is more palatable to most conservatives than almost anyone else that could be elected in the bluest of Blue States. Indeed, I suspect he will likely be more of a centrist while in the Senate. Yet where will he stand on the issues that matter most?

The positions on which I find myself in agreement with Brown (tax cuts, gun laws, etc.) are trivial in comparison to the most pressing civil rights issue of our time. As a Senator representing his state, Brown is likely to continue supporting laws and policies that allow the destruction of the most innocent members of society. For that reason alone I’m not sure that I could have voted for him. I’m still on the fence about whether my conscience would ever allow me to cast a vote for any pro-abortion candidate—even when there is no pro-life candidate on the ballot. Fortunately, unlike commited pro-lifers in Massachusetts, I’ve never faced that dilemma. (Before you condemn me as a “one-issue voter ” keep in mind that if Brown had supported Obamacare or tax increases or some other liberal economic issue he would have not have received support from anyone outside his home state. When it comes down it, there is always at least one issue on which we will refuse to compromise. We are all “one-issue voters.”)

Perhaps Brown will eventually recognize his error in supporting abortion. At the age of fifty he is still relatively young and has time to change his mind. The liberal Republican Mitt Romney didn’t convert to conservatism—and the pro-life cause—until the age of sixty. Maybe Brown will have a conversion experience of his own, even if, like his former Governor, it takes the call of the Presidency for him to recognize that all humans deserve justice and protection.

I hold out hope that Brown will begin supporting more conservative positions than he has done in the past. I’m cautiously optimistic and will take a wait-and-see attitude. I’ll also take comfort in the fact that the best of two bad choices prevailed and that the election of Brown will avert at least a few policy disasters. But my cheers will be muted. We may be forced to grade candidates on a curve, but I won’t pretend that liberal Republicans like Brown are deserving of my unqualified, enthusiastic support.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles