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Sunday 24 January 2010

Incredible Hunk leaves Obama healthcare plans floundering

The new Republican pin-up has proved he is in tune with the public mood, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

'OBAMA SUNK BY HUNK' was The Sun's excited take on the Republican capture of Ted Kennedy's Massachusetts senate seat by 52 per cent to 47 per cent. And one has to agree from the photographic evidence that Scott Brown, Cosmo's 1982 'America's Sexiest Man', is indeed a hunk.

But it's going a little far to say that President Obama is actually sunk. He is, however, floundering. Republicans now have the 41 Senate seats that can block the healthcare bill.

What went wrong for the Democrats and what are its implications? Well, for a start, there was the party, which appeared to believe that since Kennedy had been in the seat from 1962, it was theirs by divine right.

Then there were the candidates. Martha Coakley, the aloof state attorney general, clearly thought she was a shoo-in. As her poll-ratings went south, her reaction to a suggestion that she was being too passive was to say testily to the Boston Globe interviewer: "As opposed to standing outside Fenway Park? In the cold? Shaking hands?"

Since Massachusetts is sports-crazed, it was less than smart to sneer at her opponent for turning up on New Year's Day to chat to hockey fans before a seminal game. Scott Brown, who has a long record as a Massachusetts state public representative, has been in the state's army reserve for 30 years and is a dedicated campaigner on veterans' issues, has worked hard and is in tune with the public mood.

Brown is not opposed to healthcare reform, but he is against a bill he thinks is ill-thought out, fiscally irresponsible and bad for the people of Massachusetts.

When, during his television debate with Coakley, the moderator asked how he could contemplate sitting in Ted Kennedy's seat and voting against the healthcare bill, Brown replied: "Well, with all due respect, it's not the Kennedys' seat, and it's not the Democrats' seat, it's the people's seat."

His victory came from independents and disaffected Democrats as well as Republicans, with some assistance from the nationwide Tea (Taxed Enough Already) Party.

Named after the so-called Boston Tea Party of 1773, when colonists protested against duties levied by the British parliament by chucking overboard three shiploads of taxed tea from Britain, this grassroots movement doesn't like big government and wasteful spending.

It began in February 2009 when a Chicago reporter, enraged by a housing measure he believed was penalising ordinary Americans in order to bail out mortgage defaulters, called for a 'Chicago tea party'. On Tax Day, April 15, more than 500,000 tea party members protested around the country.

Derided by liberals, and mocked by humorists, the tea party protesters are mad as hell. I found on the internet a letter to a New Jersey newspaper that straightforwardly sums up their thinking.

"The people of Massachusetts have spoken, and in electing Scott Brown to the US Senate, have clearly represented the majority of American voters and sent an unmistakable message to President Obama and the Democratic Congress.

"We don't like your policies, we don't like your wanton spending, and we don't like your arrogance. But most of all, the results are a definitive repudiation of the proposed Democratic healthcare bill."

Like Scott Brown, this writer wanted a reform bill, but one that actually dealt with the deficiencies of the healthcare system.

"If the Democrats now try to ram this ill-advised version through Congress before Brown is seated, either by delaying his swearing in or by pressuring the House to accept the senate version, they will be committing political suicide, and the mid-term elections in November will resemble a bloodbath."

Obama is a smart guy and he's got that particular message. Already he's postponed his bill and charged down the populist tack by declaring war on the hated banks.

His objective, he says, is that "never again will the American taxpayers be held hostage by a bank that is too big to fail".

And quite right too. Over the years, when tempted to bail out banks, had our rulers heeded the Victorian genius Walter Bagehot when he observed that "any aid to a present bad bank is the surest mode of preventing the establishment of a future good bank", we would not be in the mess we're in.

If Obama can make serious progress on curbing the avarice and destructive capacity of banks, he could win back some of his popularity. But he needs to develop measures that can actually work in practice as well as rhetoric.

He must know too that he needs to curb his own arrogance and that of his party. Ringing in his ears are the confident words of the new political pin-up: ''I'm Scott Brown, I'm from Wrentham, I drive a truck, and I am nobody's senator but yours."

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards