Of all of the memorable moments from the Massachusetts special election, the one that stands out most--and the one with real implications for 2010--did not directly involve either of the two candidates in the race.
It came Sunday, during Barack Obama's speech.
As anyone who paid even casual attention to the Massachusetts race knows, Scott Brown campaigned across Massachusetts in a 2005 GMC Canyon. The pick-up truck appeared in a TV ad Brown ran shortly after the New Year. "I love this old truck and it's brought me closer to the people of this state," Brown said over footage him shaking hands with voters standing next to his truck.
Obama addressed the spot in his speech. He was cynical. "Forget the ads," he said as the audience sat quietly. "Everybody can run slick ads."
Obama paused briefly before offering the punchline. "Forget the truck," he said derisively, as if sharing an inside joke. The audience roared with laughter. "Everybody can buy a truck."
It was a revealing moment. Everybody can buy a truck. Obama seemed to assume that Brown had purchased his pickup truck for the purpose of using it in a political ad, as if that were the only reason that someone might own a pick-up truck--as a prop. In his world, everything is political and everything is about appearances. Beer summit anyone?
The rest of the world doesn't think that way. Scott Brown's truck is five years old. And when polls closed yesterday, it had 201,178 miles on it--most of them miles that Scott Brown had put on it himself. Brown and his advisers used the truck because they believed that it told voters something about the candidate, not because they wanted to fool voters or make Brown something he was not. The truck ad worked because it was as real as it was corny.
Obama's joke--one of several scornful references to the truck--reflected not just his detachment but his arrogance. Obama not only misunderstood the political dynamics of Brown's truck, he assumed that everyone else would see it the same way he did.
So what does all of this mean? Barack Obama is going to have a difficult 2010.
He was set to "pivot"--in the overused word of the year--to an agenda that was to have focused on jobs and the economy. White House advisers planned to kick off that effort in the State of the Union--an address that would be given after health care reform could be counted as an accomplishment. It was to have been a big speech by a president who specializes in big speeches and it was to have started Obama's transition from visionary leader to born-again populist.
That'll be a tough sell. A real populist would be far more likely to drive a pick-up truck than make fun of one.