Democrats are sifting through the rubble that once was their “supermajority” in the US Senate, looking for portents and implications.
If “All politics is local,” as another Bay State politician, former Speaker of the US House Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill Jr. famously put it, then it would be wrong to discount entirely the local factors in the race. Did Democratic candidate Martha Coakley run too bland and passive a campaign, lack a clear message, and allow her opponent to define her? Even a last-minute visit from the president failed to ignite any passion for Ms. Coakley’s candidacy.
In strong contrast, Mr. Brown found a resonant local message in railing against the Democratic “machine” that has dominated the commonwealth’s politics for decades. Just last year the speaker of the Massachusetts House, a Democrat, resigned amid allegations that he misused his office to favor friends and relatives. The two previous House speakers, also Democrats, resigned under the same cloud of ethics investigations.
Brown also follows in a well-worn tradition of success by other affable and telegenic Massachusetts Republicans, such as William Weld and Mitt Romney, both of whom were elected governor to ride herd on the heavily Democratic legislature.
But all that said, the special election clearly shows that President Obama has overreached on his domestic agenda. With Brown representing a decisive 41st Republican vote against the president’s healthcare overhaul, the future of that legislation looks murky. Ironically, the voters of Massachusetts already have nearly universal healthcare, passed by the Democratic-controlled state legislature and signed by GOP Governor Romney in 2006.
But with midterm elections coming, and with fresh hopes of a repeat of their 1994 takeover of the House, Republicans in Congress may now have little incentive to compromise with Democratic lawmakers or Mr. Obama.
Democrat Terry McAuliffe has it right when he calls the Massachusetts special election a “wake-up call.” “We have to keep our focus on job creation,” the former Democratic national chairman said. “Everything we have to do is related to job creation.”
That means healthcare will probably have to be delayed and retooled yet again. Rethinking the message will be just as important as finding the right mix of policies. It’s unlikely that many voters understand much of what’s in the House and Senate healthcare bills beyond the slogans they’ve heard in political ads.
When the time is right, the president must more clearly explain healthcare reform and put his personal stamp on it. Leaving leadership on this issue largely to the Democratic Congress looks to have failed.
Obama showed himself a masterly communicator in his campaign. While Americans’ confidence in his ability to do his job well is sinking, and his political clout seems to have vanished, he remains personally popular with an electorate that sees him as intelligent and thoughtful. Still, he will need to reconnect with ordinary Americans in a more visceral way if he wants to revive his agenda.
Expensive reforms such as healthcare are more likely to fall on receptive ears during economic booms, not busts. If Obama can help turn the economy around, new avenues for addressing healthcare and other urgent needs – such as fighting climate change – may open up.
If he can’t create more jobs, voters – even in a heavily Democratic state – have just shown that they’re more than willing to look elsewhere for answers.