Scott Brown's Moderate Woes

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Sen. Scott Brown at the State of the Union address on Jan. 25.

Scott Brown isn’t himself. Which is to say, he isn’t sounding much like the square-jawed, truck-driving, barn-jacket-bedecked Scott Brown—the calm, cool, collected Captain America—who stunned the political world a year ago by winning the special election to replace Ted Kennedy in the U.S. Senate. It’s lunchtime in the blue-collar town of Pittsfield, Mass., and Brown, who’s touring the Berkshires for the first time since taking office, is addressing a crowd of 200 Rotarians in the grand ballroom of the Crowne Plaza hotel. At first he seems poised enough. He makes fun of himself for announcing that his daughters were “available” in his first speech as a senator-elect. He reminisces about how he “drove too fast” and sneaked into concerts while summering nearby as a teen. He even jokes that he “did very well” in 2010 with the notoriously liberal locals. “I won the town of Otis,” he says. “That’s about three votes.”

But then, as the sedate audience sips chowder and grazes on cold cuts, something seems to set Brown off. According to the accepted Beltway storyline, the Bay State sent Brown to Washington to thwart an overreaching Democratic majority, thereby triggering the Tea Party “revolution” that would go on to fuel the GOP’s historic midterm gains. The problem with the official narrative, however, is that since arriving on the Hill, Brown has sided with Dems almost as often as he’s stymied them, defying his party on issues as diverse as “don’t ask, don’t tell,” financial reform, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, and the February 2010 jobs bill. Now, as a reward for his independence, the Tea Partiers who took credit for Brown’s win are starting to turn against him. Democrats, meanwhile, remain suspicious.

The strain of walking such a fine line must be getting to Brown, because as soon as he finishes his initial round of pleasantries, he launches into a peevish rant about how unfair conservatives are being when they criticize him. “The Democrats are in charge!” he shouts, his voice reaching the high, strained register that teenagers typically use when they don’t want to take out the trash. “Does that mean I’m supposed to do nothing? That I’m supposed to vote with my party every single second of every single day? Why? I haven’t done it for 15 years in the state legislature. All of a sudden I’m supposed to be an ideologue? I’m not quite sure what the mystery is, folks. When I hear some of the comments…I don’t know what the mystery is. I said I was going down there to be a Scott Brown Republican, not someone who works for Harry Reid—or Mitch McConnell!” It’s as if Brown is no longer addressing the people in the room—again, they’re mostly Democrats. Instead, he seems to be fending off foes in Washington, real or otherwise. Unsure of how to react, the crowd quietly pokes at its meatloaf.

For Brown, winning a long-shot campaign in deep-blue Massachusetts to succeed one of the most liberal and lionized members of the Senate was the easy part. The real challenge was what came next: the struggle to define himself as a so-called Scott Brown Republican at a time when partisanship and polarization are more prevalent than ever. “A lot of senators do everything they can to avoid taking tough votes,” he tells NEWSWEEK. “But every single vote I’ve taken has been a tough vote for me.”

Brown’s party-of-one positioning has made him a uniquely powerful freshman—able, as he often reminds his constituents, to squelch legislation (as “the 41st vote”) or ensure its passage (as “the 60th”). But it has also exposed him to incessant attacks from both the left and the right. In early January, Republican activist Scott Wheeler announced that his PAC, which invested $95,000 in Brown’s 2010 campaign, will “do everything possible to see that [he] is defeated by a primary opponent when he faces reelection in 2012?.?.?.?because there is no difference between him and a Democrat.” A week later Massachusetts Democratic Party chairman John Walsh accused Brown of “trying to think his way through how people are going to evaluate his voting record as a document, as opposed to voting how he believes.” Adding to the pressure: nosy reporters following wherever he goes and wanting to know, as Brown puts it, “what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, when I’m doing it, and why I’m doing it.”

In the coming year, the crossfire will only intensify. With more Republicans in Congress, Brown is bound to face greater pressure to caucus with his party, and as 2012 approaches, Massachusetts’s liberal electorate will begin to exert its influence as well. The publicity won’t let up, either. Later this month Brown will release his autobiography, Against All Odds. Although the book is being kept under wraps until it hits stores, the publishing and political communities are already buzzing about its juicy revelations: that Brown was savagely beaten by his drunken stepfather at the age of 6; that he frequently stole food to eat, and once swiped LPs from a record store; and that he spent some rowdy nights at Studio 54 while working as a model in the 1980s.

But 2011 will also be a year of opportunity for the senator. “I mean, when we lost seats this year, the effect of that was probably [Brown’s] stock going up,” says a senior Democratic staffer. “That’s the reality.” If Brown can sustain his balancing act as he prepares for reelection, he’ll be well on his way to proving the impossible: that there’s still room in the post–Tea Party GOP—and, indeed, the country at large—for the kind of aisle-crossing politicians who’ve become increasingly endangered in recent years. The question now is whether he’s up to the challenge.

In conversation, Brown is reluctant to admit that he’s a moderate; he’d rather repeat robotic talking points about “focusing on jobs” and “moving our country forward.” But his centrism was apparent as soon as he set foot on the Hill last February. At the time, Democrats were pushing a $13 billion payroll-tax exemption for employers willing to hire unemployed workers. Republicans, meanwhile, were threatening to filibuster, as usual. Lacking the votes to overcome the logjam, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called Brown. As Politico noted, it was a move “rife with irony” for Democrats “devastated” by his recent election. But on Feb. 22 the senator shocked Washington—and many of his fans—by announcing that he’d support the measure. His explanation? “I’m not from around here. I’m from Massachusetts.” Four other Republicans quickly followed Brown’s lead, and the jobs bill passed with votes to spare.

Although conservatives spent the next few weeks tut-tutting their would-be hero on TV and the Internet—“Benedict Brown” was one of the more memorable epithets—Brown would go on to behave in much the same fashion whenever a major bill was up for a vote. Which isn’t to say he’s been a renegade; so far Brown has voted with the GOP leadership 81.1 percent of the time, according to The Washington Post. But in an era when most senators score around 95 percent, Brown’s modest disobedience has been enough to set him apart.

Consider “don’t ask, don’t tell.” During the 2010 special election, Brown told the Massachusetts Family Institute that he supported the prohibition on gays from serving openly in the military. But he also said he would keep “an open mind” until the Pentagon released its forthcoming report on the policy. Within three days of the report’s late-November unveiling, Brown was telling Pentagon leaders, “I’ve been to many funerals, unfortunately, in my home state, for those soldiers, and one thing I never asked was, ‘Are they gay or straight?’?” Two weeks later he became the third Republican senator to come out in favor of repeal, guaranteeing its success.

The new START was a similar story. Brown’s mentor Mitt Romney was an early opponent of the U.S.-Russia nuclear pact, writing in July 2010 that it was President Obama’s “worst foreign-policy mistake yet.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed, advising his fellow Republicans to vote nay. And yet on Dec. 20 Brown announced that he’d “done [his] due diligence” and would join seven other Republicans in support of the treaty, virtually ensuring the two-thirds majority required for ratification. Conservatives again were apoplectic, accusing Brown of now “routinely sid[ing] against Republicans on social, fiscal, AND national security issues,” in the words of one National Review commenter. Brown was unbowed. “Gimme a break,” he said in Pittsfield. “I made my decision based on fact—not fiction, fear, or fallacy.”

But while occasional bouts of feel-good bipartisanship make for favorable headlines, Brown will also need to show some political cunning if he hopes to survive the rockier road ahead. The early signs suggest he’s ready. In August he waited until five other Republicans had signaled their support for Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan—that is, just enough for confirmation—then announced he would be voting against her. It was masterful politics: a symbolically (but not mathematically) important display of loyalty that would give the senator some leeway to defy party leadership later on, when more was at stake.

His handling of Wall Street reform was just as shrewd. When the first Democratic drafts appeared over the summer, Brown was quick to make his disapproval known—while also hinting that he’d be “open” to compromise. The Democrats bit, and to secure his support they eagerly sanded off some sharp edges that had been irking big Brown campaign donors like MassMutual and State Street Bank. The bill passed with precisely 60 votes. As a bonus, Brown padded his sizable $7 million reelection war chest with $140,000 from banks and bankers—roughly 400 percent more than the average senator received from the financial industry during the same three-week negotiating period. Not pretty, but then, sausage making never is. “I think Brown is doing everything right,” says Mike Murphy, the GOP consultant who ran Romney’s 2002 gubernatorial campaign. “He’s making sure he’s more aligned with the state than the Republican Party. He’s creating his own identity.”

Brown’s freshman year may have been one of the savviest in recent memory, but he’s far from infallible. Back in Pittsfield, the Rotarians are finishing their brownies, and the senator, who’s now mentioned that he “has to get out to the mountain to get some skiing in” twice in as many minutes, is running out of steam. When he opens the floor to questions, a senior citizen in a blue sweater raises his hand. “Could you explain this quantitative easing that [Fed chairman] Ben Bernanke is doing?” he asks. “I still don’t understand it.” Brown blinks. “What’s that?” he mutters. A few audience members repeat the phrase: “quantitative easing.” They seem to know all about the Fed’s recent decision to boost the economy by purchasing $600 billion in Treasury bonds—perhaps because Sarah Palin spent much of the autumn criticizing the maneuver. Their senator, however, is lost. “I’ve never heard [Bernanke] say that,” Brown finally admits.

In 2011 Brown will face questions far more challenging than quantitative easing. Republicans will want to know why he considers Massachusetts’s version of “Obamacare” to be a “superlative” program, as he put it in Pittsfield—and why, instead of falling in line with his repeal-happy colleagues, he’s partnered with Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon to introduce a bill allowing individual states to opt out of the new national health-care law as long as they create their own plan to provide universal coverage. Democrats will want to know whether he’s actually willing to work with the president on tough issues like education reform and deficit reduction, or whether, now that his party is gaining power, he’ll defer to McConnell and focus on ending Obama’s presidency instead of helping him to solve problems. And Massachusettians will want to know who deserves their votes in 2012: Brown, his sure-to-be-well-funded Democratic challengers, or the Tea Party types who are promising to topple him in the primary.

If Brown survives the onslaught without losing his balance—or his cool—he will have a chance to live up to the legacy of the dogged, accomplished senator he replaced. Like Brown, Ted Kennedy was considered a lightweight at first: a handsome, athletic neophyte who excelled at retail politics but didn’t boast much of a résumé; an upstart who defeated a seasoned state attorney general to win one of the most obsessed-over races of his time. Kennedy, of course, went on to author or cosponsor more than 850 bills during his 47 years in the Senate. He may have been a liberal, but he was also a master of bipartisan compromise. For a rookie like Brown—a rookie who’s fond of saying, “It’s not about Democrat or Republican”—there are far worse footsteps to follow.

With Daniel Stone

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