Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Fallout From Massachusetts

I don't know what Barack Obama may have imagined in the last 12 months whenever he anticipated his first anniversary in office.

But I'd be willing to bet dollars to doughnuts that, even in his lowest moments, he didn't think the Democrats would gain — and then, within a few months, lose — their filibuster–proof status in the Senate, especially with the loss of the seat that was held for so long by Edward Kennedy, on the day before Obama's first anniversary as president.

Republicans may have fantasized about it, but only those who were completely resistant to the notion of jinxes permitted such thoughts to take root.

Democrats may have feared it, but most of them seemed to be in denial until the very last days, by which time it was probably too late to rescue Martha Coakley's foundering campaign.

Well, Republican Scott Brown claimed a victory in Tuesday's special election that probably would have been considered impossible nearly five months ago, when Kennedy was buried.

It may seem melodramatic to say this, but I'm inclined to think that yesterday's election changes America's political landscape as indisputably as the use of nuclear weapons against Japan changed the world in 1945.

Our political world today is not what it was yesterday.

Today, on the morning after the election in Massachusetts, Democrats are playing the blame game, reports the Associated Press.

Certainly, there are many ways to spin this, and people on both ends of the spectrum are spinning like tops today.
  • Rich Lowry of the New York Post says it shows that "[a] truck, a Twitter account and an unassuming guy can move the world."

    That seems a little grandiose to me. The only folks who voted were residents of Massachusetts, although their group decision could be said to have made the rest of the world sit up and take notice.

  • "There's no way for the Democrats to soft–pedal the historic thumping that Republican Scott Brown delivered to Democrat Martha Coakley," writes Newsweek's Jonathan Alter.

    He acknowledges that Coakley's defeat is a wakeup call for Obama and other Democrats, as well as an indication that the president needs to listen more. But he resists the suggestion that it means Obama and the Democrats should abandon health care reform. "Who elected Massachusetts to decide for the rest of the country whether we move forward on the bill?" he asks.

    I would have thought that Alter had been observing American politics long enough to know better. While this may come as something of a shock to those who are somewhat new to American politics and/or history, that's the way this game is played, especially during midterm years.

    Endangered Democrats who want to be re–elected in jurisdictions that are less progressive than Massachusetts are taking a different lesson from the results than Alter apparently is. And they are seeing caveats in the vote totals.

    If a solidly Democratic state like Massachusetts can elect a Republican to take Ted Kennedy's place in the Senate, what will that mean in states like Arkansas (Blanche Lincoln), Colorado (Michael Bennet) or Nevada (Harry Reid)? It might even have consequences in states with more moderate political reputations, like Pennsylvania (Arlen Specter) or California (Barbara Boxer). It certainly seems likely to have ramifications where Democratic seats are open, like Illinois, North Dakota and Delaware.

    If Massachusetts can fall, Democrats across the country are telling each other today, anything is possible.

  • I see no way that yesterday's election will not be a factor in all the other races that will be held this year — the primary contests as well as the general election campaigns. Congressional Democrats, whether they are in the House or Senate, cannot take their renominations for granted, particularly if they represent states or districts that have been hit hard by joblessness, as most have.

    As Philip Klein observes in The American Spectator, "Obamacare [may] not [be] done for quite yet, [but] in football terms, its status went from 'probable' to 'doubtful' virtually overnight."

  • TIME's Karen Tumulty chimes in, saying Brown "pulled off one of the most stunning upsets in modern political history, potentially dealing a crippling blow to President Obama's agenda."

    Potentially is one of those words that leaves a lot of wiggle room.

    Clearly, we'll have to see how the rest of this election year plays out, but unless the Democrats can find a way to take a seat from the Republicans — or somehow avoid additional losses in 2010 and then capture a Republican–held seat in another special election in a different state before 2012 — Brown's victory seems all but certain to deprive the Democrats of a filibuster–proof Senate for the remainder of Obama's term in office.

    And that will affect the legislative agenda. It's rather elementary, isn't it?

  • In the Wall Street Journal, Lanny Davis insists that it wasn't Coakley's poorly run campaign that led to this setback for the Democrats. "This was a defeat not of the messenger, but of the message," writes Davis, "and the sooner progressive Democrats face up to that fact, the better."

  • While many Democrats are, no doubt, feeling glum today, Jeff Jacoby states, in the Boston Globe, that they have been given a "blessing in disguise" by Massachusetts' voters "if only they are wise enough to recognize it."

    The voters, Jacoby says, "have provided the president a priceless second chance to adjust his political course, move toward the center, and deliver at least some of the bipartisan cooperation that was at the heart of his once–enormous appeal."
But, when all is said and done, I'm inclined to agree with John Judis, who writes, in The New Republic, that Obama's problem isn't in Massachusetts, where polls show he is still personally popular, but in the nation as a whole.

And, as Jacoby observes in the Globe, Obama has been given a chance to adjust the course of the ship of state before it strikes a reef. The real question is whether he and the Democrats will act upon their knowledge.

"Bill Clinton didn't know he was in big trouble until the very eve of the November 1994 election," Judis points out. "Barack Obama knows now, barely a year into his presidency."

It's almost like suggesting that the captain of the Titanic could have been warned about the icebergs he would encounter in April 1912 nearly a year before embarking on his voyage.

So I wonder: If Captain Smith had been told, in June 1911, that there were likely to be icebergs in his path, would he have adjusted his course? Or would he have clung to the misguided belief that his ship was unsinkable?

What will Obama do?

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