Alex Massie

Massachusetts Meltdown

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Writing about stuff before it has even had a chance to become news has been a significant media trend this past decade. The internet accelerates this. So, even though voting in the election to fill Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in Massachusetts hasn't even started yet, it's important to speculate on the outcome of the contest and its likely consequences. These days even Breaking News is Old News...

Martha Coakley, the hapless Democratic candidate, seems set to lose one of the safest Democratic seats in the country to a Republican challenger no-one had even heard of a couple of months ago. This is ineptitude on such an impressive scale that you could be forgiven for thinking Gordon Brown must be running her campaign. Nate Silver gives Coakley just a 33% chance of winning. (Given her history in this appalling perversion of justice, Coakley deserves to lose too, regardless of her lack of campaign chops. She also prosecuted British nanny, Louise Woodward.)

Brown's victory is going to freak-out an awful lot of people. See this Andrew Sullivan post, for instance, that stops only just short of crying America: She is Dead! (Andrew, to be fair, admits that he may have gone a little over-board). There'll be much more of this sort of thing in the days to come. And, for sure, you can see why Democrats and Obama supporters would be mad with frustration and bitterness. 59 votes in the Senate is a long-way short of 60. Power now shifts from Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson to Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. Everything, from legislation to nominations, is back up for negotiation. At the very least, any hopes th eliberal-left had are now dashed. The centrists are more powerful than ever. (Ironically, in the longer-run one could sketch a scenario in which this helps Obama, not least since it reigns in the liberals.)

So we can expect an awful lot of commentary declaring that Obama's presidency is now all but over. Even before the mid-terms! Republicans will dismiss Democratic explanations for the catastrophe that blame a) Coakley and b) the economy. For the GOP this will be a referendum on and repudiation of both the President himself and, specifically, his health-care proposals. There'll be some truth in this, but only some. Few people, I think, doubt that a better* candidate - such as Mike Capuano - would have been better able to connect with blue-collar Bostonians. So, Democratic lamentations about how complacency, arrogance and stupidity cost them the seat have some merit.

But neither that nor the economy will have much of an impact on the immediate post-mortem. Nor will the fact that the Democrats weren't going to have 60 Senate seats after the mid-terms anyway. From that perspective - mildly Pollyannaish as it may be - Brown's victory simply changes the calendar.

Nevertheless, it's a disastrous embarrassment for the Democratic party and, inevitably, damages the President too. It leaves him weaker and there's no point anyone trying to deny that.

Still, it only becomes completely calamitous, I hazard, if Democrats lose their heads and run away from the President and the health care bill. It may be that none of them are in love with the bill but the thought of losing it altogether should concentrate even the most dunderheaded left-wing minds in the House of Representatives. Jon Chait and Jon Cohn run through some of the options here and here, but by far the most sensible (it seems to me, as an outside, disinterested observer) is for the House to pass the Senate bill and then, if necessary, tinker with it through the reconciliation process. Getting 218 votes in the House won't be easy and perhaps impossible unless labour's muscle is behind the vote too, but it's that or disaster. From a Democratic perspective of course.

Megan McArdle disagrees and makes a good sunk-costs-based case. And she has a point. But, again from a Democratic perspective, if you really think HCR is the Progressive Holy Grail then this is the time for you to screw your courage to the sticking place and pass the damn thing and devil mind the risk. Apart from anything else, it might be the last time you can pass something Really Big. And, contra Megan, Democrats have to take something to the public that they can sell. We tried but we failed so give us another chance isn't a super rallying call.

One of the minor ironies of this election, mind you, is that the national health care bill on the table is, in some respects, a souped-up version of Massachusetts' own health care plan (passed by Mitt Romney when he was still a centrist, can-do technocrat). Indeed, part of Brown's argument is that We Bay Staters don't need this expensive health care reform because we've already got good, comprehensive health care here. And, doubtless, some of the opposition to the bill comes from the rump-Naderite left for whom it doesn't go far enough.

(This reminds me of something I've long thought: finally, at long, long last solving health care - that is, making insurance pretty much comprehensive - could actually diminish Democratic enthusiasm in subsequent elections. That's one of the downsides of victory: you have to abandon the rallying cries that inspired the troops to give their all in the first place. The right is luckier here: the evangelical movement must content themselves with mere rhetorical victories that rarely translate into legislative triumphs (at least at the federal level). If nothing else, this keeps 'em hungry and motivated for future campaigns.)

But, in the end, by far the worst legislative consequence for the Democrats is losing a bill that was all but won. The psychological damage is a different matter: there'll be a few more nervous Democratic members and the conservative movement will believe, with some cause, that they can inflict major damge on the Democrats in November. We can expect enthused, well-funded Republicans tearing into slightly bedraggled, nervous Democrats.

Still, even allowing for the damage losing the bill (or even passing it at this stage) would cause - and there'd be plenty of it to spread around - in the end, Obama's administration will, like most of its predecessors be judged by the state of the economy. That bodes poorly for the mid-terms and perhaps for 2011 too (if it's a jobless recovery). The only referendum on Obama that counts, however, is the one that comes in 2012. So while Brown's victory is a very serious, very hefty blow it doesn't have to be fatal and it's still too soon to say that Obama is done for or a failed President.

Just ask Bill Clinton about that.

*I gather, for instance, that Coakley's complacency was such that she gave her campaign ten days off. Last month. Nice, but daft.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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