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01.19.10

New White House Blame Game

With Martha Coakley expected to lose the special election in Massachusetts, the White House has found an unlikely culprit: the underwear bomber. Richard Wolffe on how top aides are spinning the expected loss.

Martha Coakley has lost the special election in Massachusetts to opponent Scott Brown. The White House has found an unlikely culprit: the underwear bomber. Richard Wolffe on how top aides are spinning the crushing defeat.

As the Democrats formed their circular firing squad in anticipation of a stunning defeat in Massachusetts, some senior Obama aides blamed a new factor for their struggle to hold Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat: the Christmas Day bombing plot.

Some aides say the political focus of the White House in the frenetic days after the attempted attack was mostly on terrorism at a time when Republican Scott Brown was airing his first TV ads and Democrat Martha Coakley was still off the air.

“When we all found out there was a problem, it was too late,” said one senior party official.

However, other Democrats place the blame squarely on Coakley and her campaign. “There’s a lot of things on the White House’s plate all the time,” said one senior party official. “In a race like this, you want your ears on the ground to let you know that there’s a problem. When we all found out there was a problem, it was too late.”

Inside the White House, officials fully expect the finger-pointing to be aimed partly in the direction of their political and communications offices, even as they heap criticism on Coakley, her campaign, and the national party.

Obama’s aides insist the president decided to campaign for Coakley on Sunday because he wanted to contribute, and wasn’t pre-positioning himself for the blame game.

Dana Goldstein: Why Coakley Leaves Women Voters Cold“Given the fact that he is still personally popular there and the fact that it was still close enough to make a difference, he wanted to do everything he could and not stay on the sidelines,” said one senior White House official. “No matter what, you’re going to get blamed for it. So the question is: Can you make a difference in a positive direction? If you talk to the people on the ground, we had a very good weekend.”

Now Obama’s aides are gaming out how to rescue their landmark health-care legislation in a Senate without a 60-vote bloc that can break a GOP filibuster.

One option under active consideration is to convince the House Democrats to vote on the Senate bill unchanged. Any changes that the House demanded could be pushed through in separate votes under so-called budget “reconciliation” rules that require a simple majority in the Senate.

An entirely different strategy would be to break up the bill and vote on its component parts piecemeal.

Some optimistic White House officials say they believe something positive could emerge from a Massachusetts defeat, once the recriminations have died down. Their hope is that the Coakley fiasco alerts complacent Democrats to the scale of their challenge this year, and fall in line with a robust set of challenges to Republicans that President Obama will set out in his State of the Union next week.

Among those challenges to the GOP: whether they support reform of Wall Street as well as a new “fee” on big banks to recoup the TARP bailout cash, and whether they want to cut health-care costs or protect insurance companies.

At the same time, Obama’s aides hope the Massachusetts race resets expectations among House progressives and the party’s base. “They seem to think we had 60 votes all along and could do anything we liked,” said one aide. “That was never the case. Now they know it isn’t true.”

Richard Wolffe is Daily Beast columnist and an award-winning journalist. He covered the entire length of Barack Obama's presidential campaign for Newsweek magazine. His book, Renegade: The Making of a President, was published by Crown in June.