Saturday, November 06, 2010

After an election.

Tradition demands that I post something about the recently completed election in the United States, though my comments are necessarily circumscribed by the twin restraints of prudence and time. Thus, I plan to limit myself to some brief comments on a couple of political races I've already written about. Before I do that, though, I should note in passing that in the immediate aftermath of an election I generally feel something akin to what Bart Giamatti described in these two paragraphs at the very end of his brilliant baseball essay "The Green Fields of the Mind":
That is why it breaks my heart, that game--not because in New York they could win because Boston lost; in that, there is a rough justice, and a reminder to the Yankees of how slight and fragile are the circumstances that exalt one group of human beings over another. It breaks my heart because it was meant to, because it was meant to foster in me again the illusion that there was something abiding, some pattern and some impulse that could come together to make a reality that would resist the corrosion; and because, after it had fostered again that most hungered-for illusion, the game was meant to stop, and betray precisely what it promised.

Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.
Though Giamatti was writing about the end of the Major League Baseball season rather than the end of campaign season, the spirit of words sums up my experience of elections. Though political campaigns are ostensibly about the future, a mere means to the end of electing individuals to serve in government, for some people campaigning is an end in itself. On the basis of personal experience, I'll readily admit that campaigning is hard work and that it can often involve a lot of demoralizing drudgery and thankless toil. At the same time, though, for me there can also be a kind of magic to political campaigns, a kind of euphoria that creates the feeling that the voice of the people really matters, that the least probable of candidates might succeed no matter what the conventional wisdom or the pundits have to say, that all kinds of dreams and promises could come true - in short, that our lives could be dramatically different. Then, on election night, it all comes to a screeching halt and ordinary life resumes for all but a relative handful of the many people involved in the political process; after a few heady and exhilarating months, everything goes back to normal and we political junkies find ourselves strangely - if perhaps only temporarily - bereft.

One of the two races I feel compelled to report back on here is the hard-fought race between Democratic incumbent Barney Frank and Republican challenger Sean Bielat in my home congressional district in Massachusetts. While Frank held a comfortable lead in all pre-election polls, first-time candidate Bielat ran a vigorous campaign that led some observers to speculate that he might beat the odds and defeat a thirty-year incumbent whose role in the subprime mortgage crisis and acerbic personal style seemed to make him vulnerable. On Tuesday, Frank won reelection with nearly 55% of the vote, with 44% going to Bielat and the remaining votes distributed among two independent candidates. Frank's eleven-point victory over Bielat seems convincing enough, but it bears mentioning that the only time Frank has won by a narrower margin than this was in his first election to Congress in 1980, when he beat GOP candidate Richard Jones by a mere four points. Given the district's electoral history, Sean Bielat could conceivably be regarded as the strongest foe that Barney Frank has ever faced - perhaps even stronger than veteran GOP congresswoman Margaret Heckler, whom Frank beat by a remarkable twenty points after redistricting pitted the two against one another in 1982. Frank's victory may seem remarkable, but Bielat also deserves credit for making this a competitive contest.

I've commented here before on the considerable geographic, socioeconomic, and ideological diversity of Massachusetts' 4th District, and I've observed that Barney Frank's ability to hold this seat for so long is more reflective of his ability to win federal funding for local projects and the attentiveness of his staff to constituent service than it is to his ideology. Particularly in the more blue-collar and culturally conservative southern half of the district (the part of the district that I hail from) a politician's ability to 'get things done' matters much more than what he or she might have to say about more neuralgic policy issues. Frank's national reputation as an articulate and combative liberal spokesman may have helped him consolidate a strong base of support in affluent and left-leaning Boston suburbs like Newton and Brookline, but voters in cities like New Bedford and Fall River back him for an entirely different reason: as Fall River native E.J. Dionne observed a couple of days before the election, SouthCoast voters support Frank because he attends to the bricks-and-mortar and bread-and-butter concerns of the region.

Taking a closer look at Tuesday's results, it's also worth noting that Bielat won in a majority of the district's cities and towns (eighteen communities went to Bielat, while eleven were won by Frank) and that nearly all of Frank's winning margin of 24,510 votes came from Newton and Brookline. If the votes cast in these two communities for both Bielat and Frank are excluded from the total, Frank's margin of victory becomes razor-thin - a margin, in fact, of exactly 458 votes (86,653 to 86,195). To me, this suggests that the 4th District is deeply divided: support for Frank seems to have eroded outside of his base at the northern end of the district, with many people who presumably supported him in the past having decided to switch to Bielat. This leads me to speculate that many 4th District voters have been "soft" Frank supporters who have tended to vote for the incumbent in races where he had merely token opposition but are willing to support rival candidates who seem viable. Looking ahead to the next two years, I'll be curious to see whether and how Barney Frank might try to mend fences with the erstwhile supporters who have apparently turned against him.

Turning to another contest that I've discussed here before, the Massachusetts Governor's Council race between brothers Charles Oliver Cipollini (R-Fall River) and Oliver P. Cipollini, Jr.(D-Barnstable), I have the duty to report an outcome that surprised some observers as well as the candidates themselves. Despite having refused to campaign on his own behalf and having endorsed Oliver Cipollini as the "more qualified" candidate, on Tuesday Charles Cipollini defeated his younger brother by only 1,286 votes out of over 277,000 cast and will take office in January as one of eight elected members of the Massachusetts Governor's Council, a part-time body dating back to the colonial era that advises the Governor on judicial appointments, criminal pardons, and related matters. Speaking to reporters after conceding defeat, Oliver Cipollini expressed surprise at having lost but also noted his satisfaction at a "successful" outcome.

The Cipollinis' satisfaction over Charles' victory seems not be shared by the local media. The day after the election, the Fall River Herald-News expressed some consternation over the fact that "Charles, the Republican in the big blue state, the admittedly less-qualified candidate, the candidate who asked not a single voter to vote for him, the good brother who spent countless hours stumping for his sibling, won." More recently, New Bedford Standard-Times columnist Jack Spillane speculated that some Democrats may have voted for Republican Charles Cipollini as "payback" for a brotherly scheme that was intended to put Oliver Cipollini into office. Spillane gets things wrong when he describes the district as "overwhelmingly Democratic" - it also includes a lot of Republican-friendly territory in Plymouth County and on Cape Cod - but I wouldn't be surprised if supporters of some of the Democratic candidates who lost to Oliver in the primary voted for Charles in the general election.

On the other hand, the presence on the ballot of higher-profile contests involving competitive GOP candidates (the Frank-Bielat race, for example, as well as the open-seat congressional race between Bill Keating and Jeff Perry) likely boosted turnout among Republicans and more conservative independents and could have given a low-visibility Republican nominee like Charles Cipollini an edge he otherwise would not have had in the Governor's Council race. In other words, people who went to the polls specifically to support candidates like Sean Bielat and Jeff Perry may also have voted for the unknown Charles Cipollini simply because he had an 'R' after his name, giving Charles the extra few votes he needed to win even as Bielat and Perry went down to defeat.

That being said, I imagine that the similarity of the two candidates' names - the Republican was listed on the ballot as Charles Oliver Cipollini - may have left some voters confused about whom they were voting for, though it's impossible to tell whether this alone could have made a difference. As one who enjoys the drama and spectacle of campaign season and appreciates the presence of colorful characters like the Cipollinis, I must confess that I'm amused by the outcome of this race even if I can't offer a satisfying explanation for it. As I prepare to return to my usual fare of cultural and religious blogging, I thank my regular readers for their indulgence of this rare foray into political commentary. AMDG.


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