The failure on Tuesday night of Democrat Martha Coakley to succeed the
late Sen. Ted Kennedy is a political catastrophe for national
Democrats. Almost unfathomable given what appeared to be an
insurmountable lead for Coakley one month ago, the loss of Kennedy's
seat puts the Senate Democratic caucus below the 60 votes needed to
overcome Republican filibusters, endangering the passage of health
care reform and imperiling President Barack Obama's entire 2010
Coakley's stunning special election defeat in perhaps the bluest state
in the Union speaks clearly to the sour national mood facing the
President and his party right now. If this result and widespread
polls are any indication, Democrats can expect to be walloped in
midterm elections in November.
Blame for Coakley's drubbing can be traced in great part to the
candidate herself. Coakley ran one of the most aloof, incompetent
major campaigns in the last 10 years, worse even than Creigh Deed's
much-maligned effort in Virginia for governor last fall. The general
agreement is that she was too content with a big lead in the polls,
putting forth a lackadaisical effort after she won the primary, and
not constructing a good field organization, voter identification list,
or spending much money. It did not help that Coakley herself is a
Naturally, the winning of a Massachusetts Senate seat by Republicans
for the first time in 38 years cannot be attributed solely to a
mediocre nominee; rather, larger issues are at play, particularly the
President's low popularity and 2009 record weighed heavily in the
A week ago, a CNN poll found a growing enthusiasm gap between
Democrats and Republicans, with Republicans more electorally
energetic, and polls in this contest bore that out. A raft of polls
taken shortly before the election showed large swaths of Democrats
abandoning Coakley to back her opponent. For Massachusetts Democrats
to support a Republican for U.S. Senate speaks to how poorly the
electorate views the Democratic Party right now.
Republican Scott Brown's victory over Coakley is a visceral
illustration of the disgust many voters feel towards the party in
charge right now. Rolling into office last January with the White
House and robust majorities in both houses of Congress, Democrats like
those in the Bay State expected the President to institute broad
legislative and social changes, and have not gotten the legislation
Obama's inability to rally Democrats two days before the election
shows just how much political potency he has lost among his base
because of the government's unproductive 2009.
The immediate consequences for Democrats' are clear. Because
Democrats have still not yet approved a final health care compromise,
the swearing-in of a new GOP senator throws a wrench in the process.
In what would be a particularly tragic irony to many Democrats, Brown
could hold the deciding vote to kill the legislation by voting with
Republicans to filibuster any final product.
Under Massachusetts law, Brown could receive a certification to the
seat after military and absentee ballots are counted and all results
are verified, something which could be dragged out until first week of
February. For his part, Brown is already demanding to be seated
immediately and any delay is likely to be attacked by Republicans as a
ploy to ensure the passage of the health care package. Expect Brown
to become a senator sooner rather than later.
Democrats thus have very limited time to find common ground between
the House and Senate. If they delay Brown's swearing-in, they risk
further crystallizing national opposition to reform and badly
delegitimizing any legislation that is passed. Congressional leaders
are already discussing having the House approve the Senate bill
straight-up, but given deep reservations in the lower chamber and that
the lower chamber has been rolled by the Senate so many times in the
process already, this would be a tough pill for Members to swallow.
Still, if Brown is sworn in this week, Democrats may have no choice
but to take this option or finally consider passing reform through
budget reconciliation; otherwise, there will likely be no reform
package passed. This would constitute a failure of titanic
proportions for the President.
Of course, Obama and Democrats would never have been in this position
if Congress had moved with greater urgency to pass what the President
has called one of his top priorities. But last year, with the
President refusing to provide any precise leadership, Congress
dithered, frittering away months on meaningless negotiations without
making any progress. With Brown's imminent elevation, the party is in
a horribly precarious position.
The impact of Brown's election is even more far-reaching than health
care. Now that Republicans are in control of 41 Senate seats, they
can block the passage of any substantive Democratic legislation with a
unified filibuster. With President Obama now looking increasingly
weak and Democratic poll numbers falling, large party losses in
November look virtually certain.
Politically, Republicans thus have no reason to help Obama claim any
legislative victories. In 2009 with 40 votes in the Senate they did
this to good effect, and now with enough Members to stave off a
cloture motion, there is little question they will continue holding up
significant legislation, likely making all the items on the Democratic
wish list - cap-and-trade, a jobs bill, robust Wall Street regulation,
immigration or bankruptcy reform - dead on arrival.
And this to say nothing of the impending retirement threat: with
Coakley's defeat, numerous Democrats will head for the retirement
exits, telling themselves that if Democrats cannot hold Ted Kennedy's
seat in the bluest of the blue states, there is little point in
staying for and enduring an electoral bloodbath in November. You can
rest assured that Pelosi, Democratic Congressional Campaign chairman
Chris Van Hollen and powerful New York Sen. Chuck Schumer are now
burning the phones to assuage their terrified colleagues and blame the
loss solely on Coakley.
As all this transpires in the coming weeks and months, there will be
much finger-pointing; but there needn't be.
National Democrats have no one to blame but their own weak candidate
and President Obama's lack of accomplishments in 2009.