Taxachusetts Mayhem

By Michael I. Niman ArtVoice (etc.) 1/28/10

Speaking at the anti-abortion “March for Life” in Washington last Friday, Iowa Republican Congressman Steve King asked if there was anyone from Massachusetts in the crowd. He went on to congratulate these “pro-life” voters “for helping us kill the anti-life bill” that would have extended health insurance to 30 million uninsured Americans. King was, of course, referring to the upset Senate victory of Republican Scott Brown, a pro-choice and pro-death penalty metrosexual nude pin-up model.

At about the same time, I received an email from the AFL-CIO, with a statement from the labor organization’s president, Richard Trumka, who characterized Brown’s win as “a working class revolt—a signal that in this economic crisis, the American people demand jobs, health care and an economy that works for them now—not political business as usual.” The spin here is dizzying.

Here’s what we know about Massachusetts’s new Senator-elect. He believes abortion is a woman’s right, but as with other aspects of healthcare, doesn’t think the government should pay for it. He is a strong supporter of the death penalty, teacher-imposed prayer in public schools, continuing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, mandatory sentencing for victimless drug crimes, and “enhanced interrogation” for accused terror suspects. He’s against same-sex marriage and domestic partnership benefits, limits on corporate contributions to political candidates such as himself, increased healthcare funding, and the federal school breakfast program for impoverished children.

What we know about Taxachusetts is that fewer than 15 percent of its state legislators are Republicans, all their Representatives to Congress are Democrats, they haven’t elected a Republican to the US Senate since 1967, and they provide near-universal healthcare coverage for their own population. So what gives here?

The AFL-CIO contracted Hart Research to poll voters and try to gauge what’s up. Their poll of 810 voters asked not only for whom they voted (which statistically matched the actual outcome) but, in trying to address the mystery of this upset election, asked who they were and what they believed in. According to the results, it was the economy, and not healthcare, which voters identified as their top issue, with 61 percent of them believing the stimulus package helped the financial industry, as opposed to 18 percent thinking it helped working people. Most said they supported a candidate who would control “healthcare costs and cover the uninsured.” By a plurality of 50 percent, they faulted the Democrats for failing to “make needed changes” rather than fault them for “making too many changes too quickly.” By a factor of well over two to one, the poll found that they were more concerned about “Democrats doing too much to help banks and Wall Street,” as opposed to being against them “imposing government regulations.”

In short, the Washington Democrats ain’t quite living up to Massachusetts standards.

The Washington Post teamed up with the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health to conduct a similar poll. Their poll showed opposite results on the prime question of what brought voters out to the polls, with healthcare topping the economy as the most important issue. As is usually the case with polls, the differing results probably reflect differences in how pollsters phrased questions. Even so, both polls agree that voters concerned with healthcare came out to support the Democrat, as opposed to Brown’s voters, who were more motivated by economic issues but, according to the Post’s survey, still overwhelmingly (80 percent) opposed the current healthcare bill in Washington.

Both polls agree that Obama is still popular in Massachusetts, despite the election, with the AFL-CIO poll giving Obama a 52 percent approval rating, and the Post’s poll placing his approval rating at over 60 percent. Nearly half of the voters expressed dissatisfaction with Obama administration “policies,” but that number is noticeably less than the 58 percent (including 37 percent of Brown voters) who say the same of Republican policies. A slight majority of Brown voters also told pollsters that Obama played no role in their decision to vote for the Republican.

Where both polls statistically converged was on the question of Massachusetts’s own near-universal healthcare program. The AFL-CIO poll showed it popular with 67 percent of voters, while the Post’s poll found support at 68 percent, with a slight majority of Brown supporters also supporting TaxachusettsCare. So we know Massachusetts voters support providing universal healthcare to their own community—Alabama, Mississippi, and Wyoming be damned. Now we’re getting somewhere.

With most federal programs pulling tax revenue out of northeastern states and redistributing it to support programs in whining red states that never say “thank you,” it’s no wonder Massachusetts voters might want to leave well enough alone, since they already have what is basically the same health plan that Scott Brown, who voted to support it in Massachusetts, promises to vote against in Washington. Maybe a little “thanks for building us interstate highways over our swamps” from Louisiana, or “thanks for peppering our state with make-work military bases” from Texas, could go a long way in convincing New Englanders to extend the basic human right of healthcare to the hinterlands.

Of course, opposition to the current plan in Washington certainly isn’t without merit. The AFL-CIO poll found that most Brown voters were afraid that the “Obamacare” package would place a tax on their existing health benefits. In most cases they’re wrong, but the very idea of imposing a penalty on workers whose unions successfully fought for and won a level of health coverage that should be a model for all of us, rather than taxing billionaires who reap disproportionate benefits from our civilization, is patently offensive. But it’s in line with a healthcare “overhaul” that keeps a profit-extracting and unnecessary private health insurance industry in place, without public competition, sitting between American citizens and their actual healthcare providers. It’s also a plan that would stick already overtaxed state governments, particularly in blue states, with unaffordable Medicare cost increases. After being written to placate the insurance industry, essentially institutionalizing a skim to the mob, and placate 60th vote Republicrats like Joe Lieberman, the plan was a dead man walking.

As the punditocracy processes the Massachusetts election as either a referendum on President Obama or the very concept of universal healthcare, what they’ve ignored are the candidates. The AFL-CIO poll found that by a margin of 61 to 33 percent, voters claimed they were “picking the best candidate to be their US Senator, rather than sending a message to Washington.” And maybe that’s their message. Voters don’t want to be ignored, taken for granted, and factored out of politics. The media never expected a contest in Massachusetts, and for months they termed the “Kennedy seat” safe for Democrats. But the seat, it turns out, didn’t belong to Ted Kennedy, nor to the Democratic party. It belongs to the people of Massachusetts. In the end, it was Martha Coakley, the Democratic candidate, who lost the election, not Barack Obama. The Democratic party’s assumption that they, and not the voters, will chose the next senator might have been a bit too arrogant for democratic New England sensibilities.

We saw the same thing here in Erie County in 2007 when an unknown Chris Collins, with no experience in public service, won a surprise upset over a Democratic-machine-anointed golem. The Democrats selected a candidate from deep within their own inbred family, not because he was ready for the challenges of leadership in the 21st century but to reward him for decades of loyal service to party hacks. As in Massachusetts, the voters had another idea.

Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at Buffalo State College. His previous Artvoice columns are available at www.artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com, and available globally through syndication. Dr. Niman has taken a break from writing his regular Artvoice columns over the past few months while conducting research for and writing the second edition of his book, People of the Rainbow: A Nomadic Utopia.


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