A political earthquake hit Massachusetts last night. The tectonic plates of the Democratic Party shifted with the election of Republican Scott Brown to the United States Senate and left untold amounts of debris in its wake.
I woke up this morning with the hope that one has after a bad night—that it wasn't really true. Not in Massachusetts, not Ted Kennedy's seat, just a year after a seemingly euphoric country cheered the inauguration of President Barack Obama!
No one could have then dreamed when we watched Obama place his hand on the bible that the political climate would shift with such an unexpected lurch, displacing all of our previous assumptions about a wunderkind new leader who would unite us as never before.
The Democrats seemed invincible. The agenda, full of hope—yes, hope.
Political pundits are quick to cast blame everywhere. Obama was not bold enough, he was too bold, he didn't move fast enough on the economy, he moved too fast on health care, he was too liberal, he was not liberal enough.
And then the blame is showered on Martha Coakley: she went to sleep after the primary, made some political goofs and disparaged shaking hands, she was too serious, or simply, "she was a bad candidate."
I believe part of what happened is that the Scott Brown people got energized and got their people, who included many independents, to the polls in larger numbers than expected. The Obama/Coakley people simply were not as excited. Despite the last minute efforts to get out the vote, they did not ignite the same enthusiasm.
What all of us under estimated, myself included, is the broad popular appeal of the Tea Party message. I had thought and hoped that this was a fringe group. I was in Washington, DC, the Saturday morning when the Tea Party march was underway. Walking through the marchers to get to the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue was one of the more frightening experiences of my life, past swastikas, past signs so hateful I could not bear to repeat them.
For sure, this was not representative of the United States of America. Yes, not all the voters who cast their ballots for Brown yesterday are Tea Party adherents. But some of their cry of "too much government" has rubbed off on them.
But the economy is no doubt the biggest factor that influenced this election. When people have lost their jobs or are afraid of losing their jobs in the future, they lash out. They want others to know about their fears, their pain.
How much have race and gender influenced the Massachusetts outcome? It's impossible to calculate what role both played, but there is no doubt that racism is a part of the anti-Obama crusade. Gender may have played a part in Coakley's defeat because, like Hillary Clinton, Martha Coakley's credentials—so much more substantial than Brown's--were not given much attention. Finally, a woman who prepares herself for the Senate, works her way up, is dismissed for not being "likeable" enough. Again, the double bind which women at the top have to balance--being tough enough to qualify for the job and likeable enough to be elected.
Massachusetts has been known for its macho politics. The most recent woman to be elected to Congress is Niki Tsongas, who got there after her husband died. She is one woman out of ten Congressmen. No woman has ever been elected to the Senate from Massachusetts.
The national consequences of this election are now being dissected and the biggest question is: what can Democrats achieve without a filibuster proof Senate?
I hate to think about it, but think we must. We cannot let the candidate of Hope and Change dissolve into pessimism and status quo. Now is the time for all those young and eager Obama supporters to wake up and work for the agenda we believe in--including health care, the economy, and climate change. It is also time to recognize that Obama had to make compromises to get legislation through, not because he wasn't liberal or adamant enough, but he compromised and will continue to have to do because the country is not tilting left; it sits squarely in the middle.
Madeleine M. Kunin is the former Governor of Vermont and was the state's first woman governor. She served as Ambassador to Switzerland for President Clinton, and was on the three-person panel that chose Al Gore to be Clinton's VP. She is the author of Pearls, Politics, and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead from Chelsea Green Publishing.