03/24/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Democratic Panic and the Meaning of Massachusetts

"Those who do not learn the lessons of history," George Santayana famously said, "are condemned to repeat them." But those who overinterpret the lessons of history may also draw erroneous - even catastrophic - inferences about their meaning. As Democrats contemplate the implications of their defeat in the Massachusetts Senate election, there is every sign that they are in the process of making the second mistake, with disastrous consequences for the Democratic Party and the nation.

Let us briefly review what happened in Massachusetts last Tuesday. In a special election to the Senate, the Republican candidate, Scott Brown, defeated the Democratic candidate, Martha Coakley, by 4.8 points. In a state in which there had not been a Republican Senator since 1978, the Republicans won a clear-cut victory. But this was anything but a landslide; had Coakley managed to attract 55,000 Brown voters in an election in which over 2,200,000 ballots were cast, she would have emerged triumphant.

Let us imagine what the outcome might have been had candidate Coakley not done the following:

  1. exuded overconfidence and more than a whiff of entitlement from the moment she won the Democratic primary of December 8
  2. went on a vacation after the primary while her opponent was criss-crossing the state in a pick-up truck
  3. did not appear in public a single time during the entire period between December 23 and December 30
  4. when asked by a Boston Globe reporter about suggestions that she was being too passive, Coakley bristled, saying "As opposed to standing outside Fenway Park? In the cold? Shaking hands?" in an apparent reference to an online video of Scott Brown doing just that.

Many more examples could be cited, but the point is clear: this was not simply a bad campaign, but a calamitous one. Can anyone doubt that a minimally competent Democratic candidate could have won this election?

To be sure, losing Ted Kennedy's seat - and with it their 60-vote filibuster-proof majority - was a major blow to the Democrats. But to conclude from this particular election - which could easily have had a different outcome - that Democrats need to beat a hasty retreat on health care reform is to take overinterpretation to absurd lengths. After all, the Democrats still have a 59-41 majority in the Senate and a 256-178 majority in the House - far better numbers than George W. Bush ever enjoyed. Nevertheless, squeamish Democrats seem to be headed for the exit doors, worried that they be accused of "not hearing the message" from the voters of Massachusetts.

Yet as Steve Pearlstein of the Washington Post and others have pointed out, there is little reason to believe that the Massachusetts vote was a referendum on health care. True, Massachusetts voters were angry and wanted to send a message, but this anger had more to do with the general state of the economy and the failure of those in power to address ordinary people's concerns. According to a survey by Hart Research Associates of 810 voters in the special election conducted on the evening of the election, the most important quality voters were looking for was "electing a candidate who will strengthen the economy and create more jobs" (79% single-most/very important factor). Those who felt the economy was "not so good or poor" (52%) voted for Brown 56 to 39%, while voters who said the economy was "excellent, good or fair" voted for Coakley 52 to 43%. Surprisingly, especially given national media coverage, Coakley won among the 59% of voters who identified health care as one of their top two issues (50% Coakley, 46% Brown); moreover, 67% favor the Massachusetts law that ensures almost universal coverage, including a remarkable 53% of Brown voters.

As the Democrats make the fateful decision of whether to stand and fight on health care reform or to fold their tents, it is important to remember that what is at stake is a fundamental moral issue that transcends the policy and political debates of the moment. Maintaining the status quo means that each year 5,000,000 people will lose their medical insurance, over 900,000 will go bankrupt for medically-related reasons, and 45,000 people will die because of lack of health insurance. This is unconscionable in a society as wealthy as the United States, and it is hard to see how the Democratic Party - if it is to stand for anything - can permit such a system to continue.

It would be tragic indeed if the defeat in Massachusetts continues to be grossly overinterpreted by Democrats, causing a fatal loss of nerve when courage and steadfastness are required. After nearly one hundred years of struggle to establish the principle of universal health care, the Democrats have finally reached the one-yard line. Opportunities like these are rare, and if the Democrats - with control of the White House and with substantial majorities in both the House and Senate - cannot get the ball into the end zone, they will justifiably lose the people's confidence in their capacity to govern. Democrats simply must find a way to get this done. Failure to do so will cost them grievously at the polls, but the real casualty will be a growing loss of faith in the very possibility of progressive social change.