Washington Matters


Brown Devastates Democrats
With Win in Massachusetts

Mark Willen

American voters are mad, and they’re not going to take it anymore.



Use whatever superlative you want – cataclysmic, amazing, mind-bending – it doesn’t matter, you can’t overstate it. Scott Brown’s upset win in Massachusetts is a stunning Republican victory and an overwhelming Democratic defeat.

The repercussions of Brown's win will be huge and long lasting. It’ll scare the living daylights out of almost every Democrat seeking election in November (and it should). It’ll force President Obama to reconsider his agenda and his political strategy, as well as the way he speaks and works with the American people. And it’ll force a congressional realignment that will require a very different approach if any major legislation is going to pass this year.

Pundits and apologists will have all sorts of ready explanations: Obama misread his election mandate and overreached. The country has moved back – or never moved from – a center right ideology. Obama should have reached out more to congressional Republicans. Obama should have focused on the economy and left health care until later. Martha Coakley was a terrible candidate. Massachusetts Democrats weren’t paying attention.

There’s no way of knowing which of these explanations is correct. No doubt they all are, to one extent or another. Many will say it’s important that Democrats get the message and change their ways, although it’s far from clear what changes will make a difference come November.

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But one thing we do know: The American voter is extremely frustrated and hopping mad. This anxiety and anger first showed up in the 2006 elections, to the benefit of Democrats, and continued in 2008. The feelings have only become more intense since then as the economy has suffered.

Voters are worried because they’re unemployed, afraid of losing their jobs or feel stuck in dead-end slots with no pay raises and declining benefits. They’ve lost their homes, or fear they might. They see big banks and Wall Street back on top and feel the rich are doing just fine while the middle class suffers and the poor are homeless. They’re not convinced government bailouts were necessary, and even if they were, voters feel the bailouts had an unfair impact. They want Washington to fix the economy, but they want smaller, less intrusive government, with less spending and lower taxes. In short, they’re angry as hell, and while they may not be sure who’s really at fault, they’ll take it out at the ballot box on incumbents. And that means Democrats, with a very big D.

Some of this may be unfair to Democrats. I heard one Massachusetts voter tell a TV reporter that he wanted three things from Washington: A balanced budget, lower taxes and no cuts in his Medicare. If there’s a politician who says he can provide that, chances are he’s a big liar. But whether it’s unfair or not doesn’t matter. That’s the way it is, and Democrats have to adapt to it if they can. Creating a health bill that no human being could explain in less than an hour is not a good way to start.

On a practical level, the loss of the Senate seat in Massachusetts leaves Democrats without the 60-vote supermajority needed to overcome GOP opposition to any legislation or nomination. That immediately complicates the health care bill, which will be extremely difficult to pass without it. Until now, Democrats have been propelled forward by the belief that failure to pass a bill this year would be political suicide. Some may now feel, at least privately, that it would now be suicide to push ahead, that it would be better to abandon health care and hope voters have forgotten by November. But more will realize that this may be the last chance to pass health care for another decade, and they’re willing to do whatever it takes to get a bill. Obama is clearly in that category, and he won’t stop pushing. In fact, he'll push harder than ever.

The shortest path would be to have the House pass the Senate version of the bill and send it to the White House. That would obviate the need for 60 Senate votes, though it would be excruciatingly difficult to pull off. Still, that may be what Obama had in mind when he scheduled his State of the Union address for Jan. 27, earlier than had been expected. Nate Silver, perhaps the sharpest blogger anywhere, suggests that Obama is telling House Democrats that if they pass the Senate bill by then, he’ll use his address to pivot sharply and make the rest of the year all about fixing the economy. Lacking any other clear way forward, they may give it a try. House Democratic leader Stenny Hoyer of Maryland suggested as much Tuesday when he said, "I think the Senate bill clearly is better than nothing."

It’ll take a few days for all this to sort itself out, but what’s clear is that everything is different today from yesterday. And that’s terrific for Republicans and terrible for Democrats. We won’t know what it produces in terms of policy for some time, but a good guess is, not much.



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