Massachusetts: The Aftermath

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on January 20, 2010

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The dust hasn’t even begun to settle in the wake of Scott Brown’s victory, but there are already stories and trends worth noting.

1. Barney Frank believes that Obamacare is dead. Seriously. What’s more, he believes that Scott Brown should be seated immediately, and won’t vote for any bill that is the result of chicanery aimed at keeping Brown out of a Senate seat, and letting interim Senator Paul Kirk (does he still have the job?) cast a final, desperate vote for health care reform. As noted in the Spectator piece, Frank is probably expressing the same view other Democrats hold, which means that no one is going to listen to Jonathan Cohn. And for that matter, few people are in the mood to listen to the White House, as it insists that health care reform can still happen. There will, in all likelihood, be no effort to try to push the Senate bill through the House, and then come back and fix up outstanding issues to the Democrats’ liking through the reconciliation process; too many Democrats are spooked and terrified as a consequence of the Brown victory to let that happen. Of course, this means that Democrats are now going to be hated by their base. Precisely one year after the rapture that attended Barack Obama’s inauguration, it sucks to be a Democrat.

2. Ed Morrissey is right: Scott Brown is not a poster child for conservatism, or for the center-right in general. If Republicans are smart, they will give him a wide berth, let him continue to do his thing, and ensure that he has a good chance of getting re-elected in 2012.

3. I have heard some talk about how the Democrats can now run against GOP obstructionism, given that there is no longer a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate at the disposal of the Democrats. This effort at spin is so bad that not even FireDogLake is buying it:

Let me put this as simply as possible. Democrats control everything in Washington right now. They control the White House. They have a huge margins in the House and in the Senate. Democrats have larger margins in both chambers than any party has had for decades. They have zero excuses for failing to deliver. Americans will not find some nonsense about having only 59 Senate seats as an acceptable excuse for failing to accomplish anything. If Democrats think they can win in 2010 by running against Republican obstructionism, they will lose badly.

Not only will Democrats lose badly if they adopt this strategy, but they will be laughed at. Republicans never had 59 Senate seats, and that did not stop them from passing the legislation they wanted. Trying to explain to the American people how, despite controlling everything, Democrats cannot do anything, because a mean minority of 41 Republican senators won’t let them, is a message that will go over like a lead balloon. If you try to use that excuse, people will think elected Democrats are liars, wimps, idiots, or an ineffectual combination of all three.

4. There ought to be no doubt anymore that the Democrats have lost independent voters:

Democrats’ loss in Tuesday’s race for a Massachusetts Senate seat is a stark illustration of how support from independent voters has collapsed, a phenomenon that’s prompting party leaders to revamp their playbook for this year’s midterm elections.

Independent voters—typically centrist, white and working-class—backed President Barack Obama and the Democrats in 2008. But Massachusetts is now the third Obama-won state in the past three months where independents have swung decisively Republican.

Polls in the days leading up to the vote suggested the lead for Republican Scott Brown came about largely because of his advantage among independents over Democrat Martha Coakley.

A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows that Mr. Obama’s job-approval rating among independents nationwide is 41%. That’s an 11-point drop from his performance on Election Day in 2008, when he won 52% of independents, and a near-20-point decline among that group from the heights of his popularity soon after taking office.

“The independents are the fulcrum of the American electorate,” said Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who conducted the Journal survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff. “Simply put, for the Democrats and Barack Obama, the arrows have been pointing down.”

5. As Democratic fortunes have fallen, Republican ones have risen:

As Barack Obama enters his second year in office amid an enduring economic downturn, voters are less optimistic about his ability to succeed and no longer clearly favor keeping the Democrats in control of Congress, according to the new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll.

The trends point to an increasingly difficult political climate for President Obama as he hopes to push his domestic agenda beyond health care this year and preserve his party’s majorities in the House and Senate. The severity of that climate, in fact, was promptly underscored by Democrats’ surprising loss of a Senate seat in Massachusetts Tuesday. The seat of the late Edward Kennedy went to a conservative Republican, Scott Brown, in one of the nation’s bluest states.

That may not be an anomaly. Nationally, the new survey finds, voters now are evenly split over which party they hope will run Capitol Hill after the November elections—the first time Democrats haven’t had the edge on that question since December 2003.

Moreover, Republicans are far more excited than Democrats to turn out and vote in November: 55% of Republican voters said they were “very interested” in the election, compared with 38% of Democrats.

There is, of course, a great deal more that Republicans need to do to increase their popularity among the American people, but the party is not even close to being in the parlous shape that it was just one year ago, when Barack Obama was inaugurated. And speaking of the President, he has his own popularity problems. Of course, it is entirely possible that Barack Obama will rally–Bill Clinton did, after all. But all things considered, at this moment, Republicans would not trade the position they are in, for the position Democrats currently occupy. One year ago, the reverse was true. Jim VandeHei, and Mike Allen put matters succinctly:

Think back a year ago and imagine someone saying Obama would throw his support behind Democrats in New Jersey, Virginia and Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts — and lose all of them.

Think back a year ago and imagine someone saying he would celebrate his first anniversary without having gotten health care, financial regulation or energy legislation signed into law. And that less than 50 percent of the public would hold a favorable view of his presidency.

Obama clearly remains popular at the personal level, a big asset that Republicans privately concede could easily help turn things around for this White House in the months ahead. But it is similarly clear that the Obama magic of 2008 has vanished. His personal popularity is plainly not transferable to other Democrats. His power with Democrats is somewhat diminished.

So much now rides on health care for Obama. His top advisers have told reporters for months that he will be judged on one issue and one issue alone: getting health care signed into law. They now realize the bill — and, with it, Obama’s reputation and leverage on Capitol Hill — could go down. As they look ahead to the rest of the year, White House advisers talk publicly of bold action, but most of the talk in private is smaller, less controversial action. Deficits. Incremental changes to energy policy. Debt commissions.

This is not the way Obama — or many of the people watching him at his inaugural address a year ago — expected that he would mark his first anniversary.

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