Last night, Democrats suffered a humiliating defeat, lost the Senate seat Teddy Kennedy had held for more than four decades and surrendered the 60-seat majority they had built so painstakingly. This extraordinary upset, which has few if any rivals among the past 2 decades, emboldens Republicans to push for still-greater gains in 2010 and deals a terrible blow to Democrats’ agenda, starting with the health-care bill that just two weeks seemed certain to adopted.
Even with that introduction, I fear I am not doing justice to the magnitude of what happened last night. After all, as we entered January, Scott Brown would have been considered lucky to get within 10% of Martha Coakley but a few voices started wondering whether little-known state Senator Scott Brown could pull off a victory; I confess I did not awake to the possibility until just two weeks ago. (That might sound late but it’s nevertheless earlier than the time at which Coakley recognized the danger she was facing.) Fast forward 15 days, and Brown pulled off a jaw-dropping 4,8% victory.
Democrats are already consumed by the blame game
In the days leading up to the election, prominent figures like Barney Frank and as many anonymous D.C. aides was there are journalists were blasting Coakley’s hapless campaign; yesterday, in the middle of Election Day, the Attorney General’s camp fired back with a memo accusing national Democrats of failing to engage and being responsible for the tough environment that has contributed to her decline. Putting aside that it is telling of the campaign’s disorganization that a top Coakley staffer found the time on Election Day to write such a lengthy postmortem, we can surely all agree that everyone is right here: such an unlikely even can only be explained by a perfect storm of factors.
The first is the Democratic nominee. Coakley ran a strong primary campaign, but she paid no attention to the general election. It’s one thing for observers like myself to declare her the heavy favorite, it’s another for the candidate to decide that she does not have to put in any work to secure her first victory in a federal race. She took a long vacation, and her campaign did not go up on TV until the final 10 days of the campaign - after her opponent started airing his third ad. As such, Brown had ample time to introduce himself to voters in a positive light. By the time Democrats woke up, it was much too late: the Republican’s favorability rating was impressively high, and a sudden blitzkrieg of negative advertisement cannot be expected to change one month’s worth of good will.
And it’s not like Coakley can blame her lack of a campaign on financial woes: as of December 31st, Coakley had more than $1 million in the bank. Furthermore, most of her failures have nothing to do with fundraising: Not only did she come across as stiff and conventional (it’s not like she seemed a particularly original and intriguing candidate back during the primary campaign), but numerous news stories reported that she scoffed at the idea of holding events and shaking hands. As of Monday, Coakley had only held 19 events since her primary victory - that’s less than one every two days!
(It’s hard to imagine Rep. Capuano, the energetic champion of progressive causes, would have given the GOP such an opening - a thought that sure to haunt Democrats so much over the next 3 years that Capuano has to be considered the front-runner to win the Senate nomination in 2012 if he wants to challenge Brown.)
Brown, meanwhile, mounted an unexpectedly formidable campaign. That Democrats should never have allowed that to matter doesn’t change the fact that not all Republicans could have pulled off what the state Senator did: He managed to navigate the GOP’s ideological divide with a talent that other Republicans will want to imitate, simultaneously presenting himself as an “independent” supportive of abortion rights and getting Tea Partiers/national conservatives to embrace him. His populist message (his attempts to channel voters’ anger over the economic crisis, his effective self-portrayal as a “regular guy” who rides a pick-up truck) clearly resonated with voters.
But in a state like Massachusetts, even the worst Democratic candidates shouldn’t lose against the best Republican ones - and let’s not forget that Coakley is, after all, the sitting Attorney General while Brown had no statewide profile as of 5 months ago. Last night’s results obviously comes in the context of a tough environment for Democrats, and despite the White House’s best efforts to put all of the blame on Coakley’s failures, there is no question that national politics played a great role in yesterday’s upset.
Had a Senate special election been held in Mississippi or Louisiana in the spring of 2008, Democrats might very well have won it. They did, after all, win House races in those two states in districts that were arguably more Republican than Massachusetts is Democratic. 18 months later, the White House has changed hands and so has the entire political landscape. Many voters who typically Democratic, starting with blue-collar workers, either cast a ballot for Brown (how many of these had ever cast a ballot for a Republican in a federal race?) or did not vote (turnout was higher than would be expected in a special election, but the motivation gap was certainly there since Boston’s turnout was lower than in its suburbs). This does speak to Washington Democrats’ unpopularity: It took them a year to squander voters’ good-will.
There will be a lot of recriminations among Democrats as to what accounts for this. The party’s right-wing, starting with Claire McCaskill and Evan Bayh, have already made it clear they blame progressives. Bayh, for instance, stated that Coakley’s defeat is due to the party being taken over by “the furthest left elements;” McCaskill declared that Democrats were taking their agenda “too far, too fast.”
Yet, to the extent that this perception exists, it is in great part due to those Democrats who spend much of their time denouncing liberals’ control over the party when they are far more powerful themselves. Take health-care: A third of House Democrats are co-sponsors of a single-payer bill, which did not even factor in the discussion. In fact, after losing on almost every intraparty fight on which they engaged this fall, progressives were ready to pass a public option-less bill that instituted new restrictions on abortion funding - a bill that closely resembles the health-care plan Mitt Romney supported in Massachusetts. Bayh, McCaskill and their allies have long ago buried most of liberals’ other priorities, from cap-and-trade to EFCA. Looking back at 2009, I have trouble seeing what the left might have to celebrate.
The perception that “the furthest left elements” of the Democratic party have too much influence in Washington has a lot to do with Bayh and Lieberman saying it is so against much of the available evidence; the flawed perception that the health-care bill’s is a socialist’s dream has much to do with those Democrats who spent months denouncing it as radical legislation before voting for it. Of course, the Nelsons and Bayhs are only hurting themselves: As long as they were open to the possibility of supporting the bill, why spend months tearing it down first? That contributed to making the legislation so unpopular that Lincoln is more vulnerable than she would be otherwise, Bayh is potentially vulnerable to a GOP challenge and Nelson’s approval rating has dipped so low the GOP cannot wait for 2012.
Democrats’ greatest fault in 2009 was a fundamental lack of response to voters’ desire to see corporations, banks or executives punished for their responsibility in the economic crisis. Instead of rising up to the challenge of representing the working-class, the White House gave Larry Summers and his ideological allies the keys to the country’s economy, framed the health-care debate as a collaboration with insurance and drug companies and all but renounced any confrontation with the financial sector. (In October 2008, who would have thought that in January 2010 Wall Street firms would have this little to complain about?) In this context, is it surprising that the hard-right has been able to seize the populist mantle, convince independents and blue-collar voters that the Tea Party is capable to channel their anger?
In short, my view is not just that cautious governance is depressing the liberal base - that alone cannot explain the voting shifts we have been seeing - but rather that it has pushed working-class voters (who are not necessarily liberal) away and has allowed Tea Party populism to prosper.
Can health-care survive?
All of these debates will come to an immediate head over the question of what should be done with health-care reform. The loss of a 60-seat majority will affect Democrats all year, and Brown’s victory will surely be a source of frustration for the party in every roll call that will be taken until January 2013, but nowhere will it be more consequential than on the health-care bill. Congressional Democrats have spent much of the past 8 months focusing on this issue, and when the Senate finally passed its version of the legislation it looked all but certain that a bill would land on the president’s desk within 6 weeks. Brown’s victory single-handedly changes the equation. It is now an open question as to whether any health-care bill will pass Congress this year.
The problem isn’t so much that Republicans now have 41 votes. (Democrats still have majorities which which to pass a conference report since it is unlikely Brown can be seated until January 29th at the earliest, and since congressional leadership has already sent large parts of the final bill to the CBO for scoring, that might be enough of a window for the same 60 senators who passed the bill in December to push it through again. Legislation could also be adopted if the House, in which the Democratic majority is obviously not affected by Brown’s victory, simply passes the Senate bill unchanged.)
If health-care reform fails it will be due to Democrats backing away. Centrists want a bill that can win Republican support; House liberals are categorically refusing to pass the Senate bill as is, since many of the complaints they had about the exchange design, subsidy levels and funding mechanisms were supposed to be fixed in conference; and Democrats across the ideological spectrum are saying they are uncomfortable with pushing anything through the Senate before Brown is seated. While Virginia’s moderate Senator Jim Webb was the first to call for a suspension of any health-care vote, liberal leader Barney Frank also said that the bill could not be passed without taking into account Massachusetts voters.
(Update: Yes, Democrats weren’t even supposed to have 60 votes until Specter switched parties; yes, they were preparing to charge ahead with health-care reform even before MA Dems changed state law to allow Paul Kirk to replace Kennedy. As such, I agree with Ezra Klein’s many posts that argue that covering the loss of a 60th seat as if the Democrats have lost control of the Senate is silly - and revealing of the institution’s dysfunctions. Yet, the problem here is that they are losing a seat after completing the debate: At this point, they can hardly turn to Snowe or Collins in the hope they can be convinced to back the reform; and turning to reconciliation at this late point would waste them precious weeks. Had they known in September they would have to deal with 59 votes, they would have proceeded differently from the get go.)
One option is for the House to adopt the Senate bill while at the same time passing a reconciliation resolution implementing some of the changes that the conference committee was expected to implement, for instance a change to the subsidy levels and the establishment of national exchanges; all the Senate would then have to do is adopt the small reconciliation bill with only 50 votes. While unions seem to be endorsing this approach, House liberals are signaling they are not because they do not trust the Senate would actually follow through on the “fix”.
Scrapping the bill and starting everything over through reconciliation thus appears the only option left on the table, though it would face major obstacles. Congress would spend many more months focused on health-care, Pelosi would still not be certain of a majority and many of the bill’s most emblematic reforms (for instance a ban on pre-existing conditions) would have to be stripped since they do not affect the budget. Yet, health-care proponents got an unexpected bit of good news today: Budget Committee Chair Senator Kent Conrad, who I would have expected to side with Evan Bayh, signaled he was “cautiously” open to using reconciliation. [Update: Ben Nelson issues a statement strongly hinting that he'll back Democratic leadership's decision because "we should not give up."]
Democrats would be taking a big political risk if they push through health-care reform under the current circumstances, especially if they take the reconciliation route. But I firmly believe the electoral consequences would be even more disastrous if no legislation passes. As the 1994 midterms showed, that would only result to Democratic incumbents seeking re-election with nothing to actually run on; it would depress liberals while doing nothing to dampen conservative enthusiasm, quite the contrary; and it would confirm to voters that the health-care bill was a radical piece of legislation and that every congressman who voted for it should be punished.
Indeed, the bottom line is that all Democratic senators and the vast majority of Democratic House members have already voted in favor of health-care reform. Dropping the legislation now would do nothing to shield them from attacks, but it would deprive them of any means to fight back.
Emboldened Republicans could seek to expand the map further
If we can win in Massachusetts, Republicans are now telling themselves, we can win everywhere. That logic is no doubt limited (not all Democrats will take a one-month break before the election, for one; the GOP saved quite many endangered seats in 2008, second), but there is no doubt that Democrats are caught in a vicious cycle. The more Republicans grow confident that they will score huge gains in November, the better the landscape will look.
Indeed, Brown’s triumph could help the GOP pull off many more recruitment coups, as credible Republicans in districts that the GOP wouldn’t ordinarily think of contesting will now probably take a look at jumping in. More Democratic congressmen could call it quits (there is little doubt that Byron Dorgan and Vic Snyder were scared off by the prospect of unexpectedly tough re-election races); Democratic leaders were reportedly calling members last night to ensure there wouldn’t be a panic-induced wave of retirements following the Massachusetts results; and the more money will flow the GOP’s way.
While we have paid a lot of attention to the NRCC’s efforts to expand the House map, the NRSC could be emboldened by its Massachusetts pick-up. They have already mounted top-tier campaigns in 7 seats held by Democrats (NV, AR, ND, DE, IL, PA, CO); why not try to put 3 more in play in the hope of taking control of the Senate? The obvious candidates are New York and California, but let’s not forget about Connecticut: Not only is it not as blue as Massachussetts, but Richard Blumenthal’s position as an invincible Attorney General looks less firm since Coakley’s loss.
The icing on the cake could be Indiana: Rep. Mike Pence is reportedly meeting NRSC officials to talk about the possibility he might challenge Evan Bayh! That wouldn’t automatically become a top-tier race, but it would certainly be a race well-worth watching. The mere fact that we’re talking about the possibility that Bayh might have to worry about his re-election race is a testament to just how low Democrats have sunk.
A few silver linings for Democrats
If even the most pessimistic Democrats could not have imagined living through such a nightmare, there are a few silver linings worth mentioning. The first is that they lost Massachusetts’s Senate seat for only 3 years rather than the usual 6: Scott Brown is up for re-election in 2012, when he will surely be one of the most endangered incumbents nationwide. He has enough political talent that he could survive, of course, but it will not be easy considering he has little time to entrench himself and that he would have to deal with Obama’s coattails.
Second, the failures of Coakley’s campaign ensure that other Democrats do not take anything for granted. If Republicans are now crowning that they can win anywhere, Democrats are more aware than ever that they can lose anywhere. Sure, everyone already knew that 2010 would be tough for Democrats - but there is a difference between believing it to be true and receiving proof like yesterday’s. As such, the GOP shouldn’t expect Blumenthal to rest on his laurels as he might have been tempted to do had he not witnessed the collapse of his Massachusetts colleague; similarly, the NRCC cannot hope to take Democratic House members by surprise, as the DCCC had done to supposedly safe GOP incumbents in the final weeks of the 2006 campaign.
Unfortunately for liberals, the week could still get much worse: The Supreme Court just called a special session tomorrow and it is expected to decide Citizens United. That could mark the end of campaign finance regulations as we know it.