What Can Brown Do For You (Senate Democrats Who Support Health Care Reform, That Is)?

He can help the Democrats pass health care, that’s what.  Indeed, the future of the Democratic health care initiative is, right now, largely in Scott Brown’s hands, and his decisions in the next week may well determine whether the current legislation passes or fails, and in what form.   Here’s why.

Despite efforts by Coakley and Democrats to link Brown to the “Tea Party” movement, Dick Cheney and the extremist wing of the Republican Party, the best evidence I can find suggests that Brown is actually what he claims to be: a moderate Republican.  That is to say, he will likely be placed, ideologically speaking, very close to the voting space occupied by the most liberal Senate Republicans, including Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, and conservative Democrats like Ben Nelson.  At least this is the conclusion of political scientist Boris Shor, who has compiled voting records of members of all 50 state legislatures, including those serving in the Massachusetts’ Statehouse.  Using a process that is similar to the one I’ve described in other posts here that ranks members of Congress according to political ideology, Shor concludes: “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!”

Here’s Shor’s table of state legislatures’ ideology scores – red signifies Republican legislators in each state legislature, and green are Democrats.  As with the previous ideology scores I’ve used, the more conservative the voting record, the closer the score moves to “2”. An extreme liberal, in contrast, earns a “-2”.  Moderates are closer to “0”.  The longer the “block”, the bigger the party contingent.  The farther apart they are, the more polarized the State Legislature.   States are identified by the abbreviations on the left, Y-axis.  Massachusetts is second from the bottom.

We see, then, that Brown is a relative moderate in a relatively liberal (for Republicans) state party. But Shor takes his analysis one step further and tries to estimate where Brown will be located in the current Senate.  He writes in this post: “[B]ased upon his voting record in the Massachusetts State Senate as well the Votesmart surveys of MA state legislators (include his own from 2002), I estimate that Brown is to the left of the previously leftmost Republican in the Senate, Olympia Snowe of Maine (see her issue positions here) and to the right of the rightmost Democrat in the Senate, Ben Nelson of Nebraska (issue positions here). Just as important, Brown stands to become the pivotal member of the Senate—that is, the 60th by rank most liberal (equivalently, the 41st most conservative)–a distinction previously held by Nelson.”

I alluded to the importance of the “pivotal voter” in an earlier post, but it is worth highlighting again:  if these ideological calculations are correct, Brown is poised to become the 60th most liberal, or 41st most conservative member of the Senate, displacing Ben Nelson from that slot.  As such he is uniquely situated – as Nelson demonstrated in the debate over health care – to leverage his pivotal vote to both shape the content of health care legislation and to extract side payments for himself and the state of Massachusetts.    Not bad for a former centerfold who was written off by almost everyone (including me!) in the campaign to replace Kennedy only two weeks ago!

Remember, Nelson was able to leverage his position as the swing voter in Senate deliberations on the health care legislation to cut a side deal that essentially shifted the cost of increased Medicaid expenditures from Nebraska voters to taxpayers in the rest of the country. Now Brown occupies that position, if Shor’s estimates are correct.

But are they? These rankings are estimates based on votes in the Massachusetts Statehouse, and applied  to try to situate Brown’s likely ideological place in the Senate.  As you might imagine, there’s a degree of uncertainty surrounding these estimates, and as such they can’t be used to definitively predict how someone will vote on any single piece of legislation.  Nonetheless, they do provide evidence that Brown is a moderate Republican, one potentially positioned to determine whether health care goes up or down.  But how can we be sure he will continue voting as a moderate Republican in the Senate?  Keep in mind that he is completing Ted Kennedy’s term, and thus faces election again in the fall, 2012.  If he wants to retain his seat in one of the most liberal states in the union, he’ll have to maintain a moderate to liberal voting record (ignoring, for the moment, the threat of him losing to a conservative in the Massachusetts primary.)  More importantly, however, think back to the spatial voting model that I introduced to you in previous postings.  Where is Brown likely to be most influential?  Not as a conservative voting with the extreme Republican Right.  There he would be the Republican equivalent of Bernie Sanders – someone whose vote the leadership can take somewhat for granted.  There was never any real expectation that those on the Senate Left like Sanders would vote against the Senate bill (or that conservative Republicans would support it).   All the negotiations regarding the details of the bill centered on attracting the vote of the moderate middle.

What this means is that Brown has every incentive to occupy the Snowe-Nelson pivotal voter position.  If he is smart, he is already signaling his open mindedness toward a health care compromise right now.  I know many of you thought the Democrats would move quickly to push through health care legislation before Brown is seated.  I said repeatedly that I thought that was politically naïve and, worse, potentially fatal for Democrats. Given his politically pivotal vote, Democrats have no choice but to sound Brown out.  And he is only too aware that he probably has maximum influence right now, even before he is actually sworn in, because he hasn’t actually cast a vote.  This uncertainty regarding his intentions gives him leverage in the health care proceedings. (According to this story in the Boston Herald, Brown is already angling for a seat on one of the more prestigious Senate committee, such as Armed Services, Homeland Security, and Appropriations.)   I realize, of course, that Brown campaigned against the current health care legislation. But that doesn’t mean he won’t accept any bill coming out of the Senate.  The combination of electoral pressures (he wants to retain his seat in a predominantly blue state) and the potential for him to leverage his position to aid Massachusetts may encourage Brown to try to forge a working compromise with Democrats and moderate Republicans. Keep in mind that more than 70% of  Brown’s supporters, according to polling data, want him to work with Democrats in the Senate, rather than work with Republicans against the Democrats.

The health care debate is at a pivotal juncture.  Brown is perfectly positioned to influence that debate.  The question is: what can Brown do for you?  The answer?  What can the Democrats do for Brown!  How far is the Democratic Senate leadership willing to go to forge a working compromise with Brown?  (This assumes they do not do the stupid thing and try to get the House to pass the current Senate health legislation.)

In my next post I’ll explore the details of what a health care compromise might consist.

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