Fallows On The News: Mass. Senator, Campaign Ads

A big Senate win for Republicans in Massachusetts alters the political map. And the Supreme Court opens the flood gates to political ad money from corporations. Guy Raz looks behind the big headlines of the week gone by with news analyst James Fallows from The Atlantic magazine.

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GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

And for Republicans, a new hero this week - a man already being called by the nickname 41.

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Senator-Elect SCOTT BROWN (Republican, Massachusetts): I thank the people of Massachusetts for electing me as your next United States senator.

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Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California; Speaker of the House): While the results of the Massachusetts election may have diminished by one in the number of senators in the Senate, it has not diminished the need for affordable quality health care reform.

RAZ: House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Massachusetts' Senator-elect Scott Brown. Brown, of course, replaces the late Ted Kennedy and becomes the Republican's crucial 41st vote in the Senate.

Our news analyst, James Fallows, has been following this story and others for us this weekend.

Jim, well, let's start with the aftermath of that election in Massachusetts. Does it mean that effectively, President Obama's ambitions have to be scaled back?

Mr. JAMES FALLOWS (National Correspondent, "The Atlantic Monthly"): Well, certainly, this is a different chapter of the Obama presidency starting now. And you and I have talked before about how much of modern politics seems to depend on fluke. The only reason that these Democrats have had a super majority of 60 votes for the last few months is the switch of Arlen Specter - his switch of parties - and then the Al Franken cliffhanger in Minnesota, and now from another sort of semi-fluke back to 41 votes for the Republicans.

We talked, too, about the long cycle of politics, that Ronald Reagan was less popular at this stage in his presidency than Obama is now. And certainly, he went on to be successful. And Bill Clinton suffered a catastrophic defeat in his first midterm election. So there are prospects for Barack Obama, but clearly things are very different in what he can plan now. And we have the stage set for yet another very high-stakes Obama speech, with the State of the Union Address next week.

RAZ: I mean, Jim, at this point, do you suspect President Obama will be taking a page out of Bill Clinton's handbook, circa 1994?

Mr. FALLOWS: I think he'll probably take one from both the Clinton and the Reagan handbooks. The Reagan handbook was essentially to get the economy going again, and then popularity returns. That was Clinton's strategy, too. The other thing that I think Clinton effectively did was to sort of distinguish his personal brand from the Democratic Party brand, so much of the resentment of the Democratic Party officials. But Clinton did that. He obviously was reelected in a landslide in 1996. So I think that we'll see some of those tactics applied, too.

RAZ: Jim, a story that quite possibly obscures most everything else that's happened politically in the last few months: a decision by the Supreme Court to lift the restrictions on the amount of money corporations can spend for election campaigns.

Mr. FALLOWS: It was surprising in its process because the Supreme Court sort of went out of its way to answer a question that the case didn't necessarily ask. It could have been cited on much narrower grounds. But instead, they had this sweeping decision essentially eliminating constraints on corporate financing of political activity and, surprising, in its consequences, too, because so many state laws and so many federal laws are essentially out the window now.

In a very short-term, what it means is another problem for the Democrats in this year's midterm elections. In the long-term, we just don't know yet.

RAZ: You know, I remember watching this sort of sci-fi movies in the '80s, like sort of films like "Blade Runner," where you see this future that is dominated by corporate advertising. And in some ways, this appears to be life imitating art.

Mr. FALLOWS: Well, certainly, the case against this decision is that it's one more step towards corporatized political life. It's not as if corporations in the U.S. or around the world are short on political influence now. And this decision, by essentially saying there's no legitimate distinction between a person's right of free speech and corporations' right of free speech, including political participation, to those who oppose it, as I do, it is one more step towards what you're describing.

RAZ: Jim, I'm curious what you made of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's speech on Internet freedom because, of course, you follow events in China very closely. And she called Internet freedom a basic human right. She criticized China for restricting what its citizens can and cannot see online, and it's causing quite a stir in China. This speech would not have made news in the United States, really, unless the Chinese criticized it.

Mr. FALLOWS: Yeah, I think this is like what Americans politicians have said for 25 years, in saying we have to deal with China in many ways, but there are things we don't like about its political system.

The reason, I think, it made news was, number one, the Google story, which has been very big in China and around the world; and number two, at least, to my knowledge, it's the first time there was this clear connection between saying we think - that regardless of what the national policies might be - we believe that free expression and free access to the Internet is some kind of basic human right. And that is a kind of new escalation of the argument that I at least hadn't heard before.

RAZ: That's our news analyst, James Fallow. He's also the national correspondent for "The Atlantic," where he also writes a blog.

Jim, thanks very much.

Mr. FALLOWS: My pleasure, Guy. Thank you.

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