Massachusetts: Lessons for Texas?

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If you tuned into cable news or talk radio last night to find out who’d won the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat—it was Scott Brown, Republican state senator, former Cosmo centerfold, and Massachusetts’ most famous truck-owner— you probably heard enough false analogies and sweeping assumptions and bold predictions to choke a horse. Maybe a rhinoceros. A greatest-hits list:

Americans now hate health-care reform! Obama is finished!Coakley lost because she thought Curt Schilling was a Yankee! Congress will never pass a health-care bill now! Tea-partiers rule American politics! Correction: Independents rule American politics! Democrats will lose every Congressional and Senate seat in America in the mid-terms!

Good gravy, where to start? Observer readers are surely too smart to believe that a special election in Massachusetts is a sure predictor of what will happen in every other state in the Union 10 months hence, when the entire national political landscape might look different. And certainly, comparing Massachusetts to Texas would be quintessentially pea-brained. So I won’t bother to pick those all those logic-leaps apart.

But one of them does have some relevance to Texas politics, so let’s take a look: Chris Matthews and Co. kept hollering all night about how the Massachusetts vote makes it impossible for Democrats running in “red states” next November to make a case for health-care reform. Martha Coakley, the disastrous Democrat who lost Kennedy’s seat, was for health-care reform. Brown was agin’ it. So there!

By that logic, Texas Dems’ likely nominee for governor, Bill White, would be stripped of one of his strongest cases against his likely Republican foe, Gov. Rick Perry. White would need to keep quiet about health-care reform because if nobody in Liberal Massachusetts wants it, surely nobody in Red Texas does.

Balderdash. Why? People in Massachusetts already have nearly universal health insurance. The main issue there was that people didn’t want to foot the bill for everybody else’s.

In Texas, more than one-quarter of the population is uninsured. That number has ballooned during King Perry’s reign. In a state where so many people desperately need health coverage (and health care), the calculus is completely different. White will have to be smart about it, of course: Perry will play the anti-federal-government card, and he knows how to do that. But health care can be part of a Democrat’s winning formula in Texas. Too many people here need it too desperately, and the incumbent hasn’t lifted a finger to help.

So: No lessons from Massachusetts on the health-care issue. But Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Bill White could both learn a thing or two from what went down up there.

With six weeks to go before the primary, Hutchison looks a whole lot like Texas’ answer to Martha Coakley. Coakley clearly believed she (as a Democrat) was entitled to the job and didn’t have to show the people that she’d work her butt off to get it. Hutchison has made it clear that she believes she is entitled to be governor of Texas, simply because she is—drum roll and fanfare, please!—Kay Bailey Hutchison.

If anything, Hutchison has gone Coakley one worse by declining to resign from the Senate and showing she truly wants to be governor. Staying in Washington has meant that her campaign mostly has had to be waged through TV ads. (And they haven’t been nearly good enough to compensate.)Texas is a vast state compared to little old Massachusetts, and hand-shaking is arguably less important here—but the principle’s the same: A candidate who isn’t hitting the pavement, asking for as many votes face-to-face as humanly possible, comes across as a candidate who thinks she’s above the people, above working her tail off to win folks’ support.

The one universal message from the Massachusetts results is really nothing earth-shaking or surprising: Good campaigns win, and bad campaigns lose. And good campaigns, whether Republican or Democratic, are campaigns characterized by a generous dose of populist energy. If you don’t come across as a “candidate of the people,” you almost always lose. Gov. Perry, for all his massive flaws, understands this. Hutchison does not. Bill White had better.