Democrat Martha Coakley concedes Massachusetts Senate election in Boston, Jan. 19.
By Jonathan Alter
There's no way for the Democrats to soft-pedal the historic thumping that Republican Scott Brown delivered to Democrat Martha Coakley on Tuesday in the race to fill Ted Kennedy's Senate seat. Brown ran a shrewd campaign that tapped into the public's anger at the system; Coakley is like the Waterworld of American politics, an indelible symbol of failure and, yes, arrogance and stupidity. It will be many years before a candidate for public office again goes on vacation three weeks before an election or shows disrespect for local sports fans.
Is this a wake-up call for President Obama? Yes. Does he need to show that he is listening more? Sure. But should this election kill health care? Don't be ridiculous. Who elected Massachusetts to decide for the rest of the country whether we move forward on the bill?
To say this should wreck the Obama administration's health-care policy is like saying that when Democrats took over Congress after a landslide victory in the 2006 midterms they should have killed the Bush administration's Iraq War. Liberals made that argument, but no Republicans bought it. In fact, the opposite happened, as President Bush moved ahead with a surge over the objections of the Democrats and the will of the public as reflected in polls. The surge turned out better than the critics thought, and health care can, too.
The week before Obama's Jan. 27 State of the Union address will be a hellish time for Democrats, but it is also an important test of whether they are willing to become a more muscular—and thus more effective—party.
Beyond the candidates' personal qualities and the angry mood, health care did play a role in Massachusetts. That's because this was a "special" election in more ways than one: Massachusetts is the only state with universal coverage. Pollsters know that the main reason expanding health-insurance coverage has been so tough for the better part of a century is that people who are covered don't care much about people who aren't. In the Bay State, more than 95 percent of residents are now covered. They got theirs, as street politicians say, and don't give a lot of thought to the 30 million Americans with the misfortune to live elsewhere who would be covered by passage of the bills in Congress.
To their credit, Washington Democrats haven't given up. The White House is weighing a plan to pass the Senate bill immediately through the House, which would, with Obama's signature, make it law automatically without Scott Brown or anyone else in the Senate getting another crack at it. Then the Democrats would use "reconciliation" budget rules to fix problems in the Senate version with 51 votes, per the agreement Obama has been working on for the last couple of weeks. This is a messy approach but doable.
The impediment is the herdlike habits of professional politicians. So-called Blue Dog Democrats from moderate-to-conservative districts are desperate to get right with their mad-as-hell constituents. But killing health care now won't help these vacillating members. Those who have already voted for it will get attacked this fall as tax-and-spend liberals. That's inevitable. But if they now vote against it, they'll get attacked as tax-and-spend liberal flip-floppers whose party can't deliver for the American people—a more searing indictment. With a bill, at least Obama and the Democrats could play some offense, charging that Republicans side with the insurance companies against working people facing soaring premiums, a costly "doughnut hole" on drugs, and the threat of medical bankruptcy.
So, it's not much of a choice, is it? Any moderate House Democrat with half a brain should vote for the Senate bill, which is much more to their liking than the House bill that many of them supported in November. Of course it's the half-a-brain part that's a cause of worry. Some of these guys are as politically clueless as Martha Coakley.
As for House liberals faced with the unappealing prospect of swallowing the Senate bill whole (the only way to get a bill to President Obama's desk), they should remember that even the hated Senate version is about a thousand times preferable to the status quo. They shouldn't let their anger at the other chamber blind them to this.
Muddling through this period (and that's the very best that can be hoped for) requires that the president and congressional leaders accept the message of Massachusetts—that voters are mighty p.o.'d—without succumbing to the GOP's interpretation of it as a mandate for no change.
Instead, the mandate should be for getting tough on Wall Street. The failure to do so, according to polls, is a big part of what's turning off independents.
Will they stay turned off to Democrats? It's important not to extrapolate from the present too far into the future, even though that's the habit in Washington. The Democrats will suffer reversals in the November midterms, but it is much too early to tell how severe the blowback at the polls will be.
Obama plans to spend most of the year in campaign mode, not congressional sausage-maker mode. That will help. So will proving that Washington can still deliver something big for the American people.