Martha Coakley and the Pitfalls of Identity Politics

Martha Coakley Darren McCollester Getty.jpg

Like most political earthquakes, Martha Coakley's decisive loss to Scott Brown in the Massachusetts Senate race was over-determined, by all the obvious factors--her own ineptitude, voter anger and anxiety, economic stress, Brown's expert ad campaign, the fickle, personality driven politics of independents, and the passage nearly 4 years ago of a health care mandate for Massachusetts.  (The health care debate resonates differently here.)  But one lesson of this loss seems likely to be ignored: it was, in part, an indirect result of identity politics that facilitated the selection of a candidate primarily on the basis of sex.  
Coakley, the only woman currently holding statewide office in Massachusetts, owed her '08 primary win largely to the state's Democratic sisterhood, committed to electing women.  In my own informal conversations with politically active women, dating back over a year, Coakley regularly emerged as the Senate favorite, but her policies and politics and her conduct as a prosecutor, (which worried civil libertarians) were rarely if ever discussed.  Progressive male candidates were rarely considered.

Call it the Emily's List effect: Coakley is a pro-choice, Democratic female, and active Democratic women in Massachusetts, still smarting over Hillary Clinton's failed presidential bid, have long lamented what was, until recently, our all-male Congressional delegation; (it now includes one woman, Nikki Tsongas, elected in 2007).  Coakley had long been a favorite daughter; her election as first female senator was practically assumed and happily anticipated.

So, the only woman in a four-person primary race, Coakley had too easy a ride to the nomination; her three male opponents seemed stymied by fear of attacking her and offending female voters.  (As the Boston Globe noted last month, "Throughout the primary, Coakley's three male opponents were wary of appearing too aggressive. Early in the campaign, when US Representative Michael E. Capuano called her "cautious,'' his remarks were called sexist by state Senate president Therese Murray. From that point on, none of Coakley's challengers attacked her with any vigor.")
Scott Brown smartly eschewed chivalry (he had no need to placate Democratic women) and Coakley was apparently unprepared for a race.  A career prosecutor, accustomed to choosing her battles and operating in environments in which she exerts considerable control, Coakley seemed incapable of improvising when confronted with an unexpected challenge.  She avoided retail campaigning and let Brown dominate the airwaves for the first crucial weeks of the campaign, while he packaged himself, in an excellent series of ads as a likable, guy next door, moderate.  When he rose in the polls, she unleashed a series of negative ads that, however unfairly, evoked negative stereotypes of women, as strident, shrill, and hysterical when challenged.  Having benefited from identity politics in the primary, she may have been hurt by it in the general.   
But if Martha Coakley lost the Senate race by being herself--very cautious, unimaginative, and essentially untested, Scott Brown won by pretending to be who he isn't--an affable, moderate independent.  In fact, he's a reliable, conservative Republican on national security, economic, and social issues.  He opposes the Obama administration's agenda consistently and contemptuously, (excepting his support for the war in Afghanistan).  He favors torture (in the form of water-boarding) and opposes due process for terror suspects; he opposes taxing banks to recoup bail-out money.  He's derisive of gay couples who have children and staunchly opposed to gay marriage as well as a broad range of reproductive rights; (he was enthusiastically supported by Massachusetts pro-lifers confident that he'd be a "pro-life vote in the Senate").  The race to retain his seat in 2012 should be interesting, especially if Democratic women don't make the same mistake twice.

Photo credit: Darren McCollester/Getty Images