Some observations on the Bay State Shocker:
Candidates matter, don't they?
Yes they surely do. Martha Coakley's campaign was so staggeringly inept, complacent, arrrogant and stupid that she threw away a Senate seat in a state Barack Obama won by 26 points a year ago. Yes, Republicans have won statewide before in MA but this was rather different, was't it?
Have voters become disillusioned with the administration, even in Massachusetts?
To some extent they have. But not by 26 points-worth of anger and frustration. A better candidate and a more rigorous campaign almost certainly holds this seat for the Democrats. By contrast, Scott Brown ran an almost perfectly-pitched campaign.
So, er, this result doesn't really count?
Oh yes it does. What's done is done and you don't get a Mulligan. This is a real, undeniable, victory for the GOP and hypotheticals advancing the case that if the Democrats had done things differently aren't worth much now that the damage has been done.
Was this a victory for the Tea Party movement?
Yes. And No. Enthusiasm and commitment matter and the Tea Partiers certainly bring this. But it wasn't a victory for the Party of Palin or Limbaugh. Scott Brown is, by some though not all measures, now the most liberal Republican in the Senate. If the GOP is to recover in the North-East it needs more Browns. But he's a "Massachusetts Republican" not a Sarah Palin Republican.
What about the economy?
No interpretation of this result that doesn't take at least some account of the weak, fretful economy is worth a damn. Unemployment is still at 10% and recovery, if there is one, remains fragile and timid. Other factors matter, but they're essentially transient and are dependent upon the state of the economy for their effect. Blue collar workers - never Obama's strongest constituency anyway - seem especially discontented. They're not bitter; just angry and feeling left-out.
So it's just the economy?
No it's not. Election results are unicausal. There's some reason to suppose that the combination of passing economic stimulus, pressing ahead with cap and trade and chasing the Progressive Holy Grail of health care reform is too much, too soon in risk-averse times. The argument that the White House and the Democratic Congress over-reached is not without merit.
Was it a referendum on health care?
For some voters, yes. Overall? Only up to a point. Scott Brown supports Massachusetts health care which is, in many ways, a mini-version of the plan before Congress. Independent voters who flocked to him don't necessarily reject either Romneycare or Obamacare. And some of the opposition to HCR comes from the left for whom it doesn't go far enough. A majority, therefore, probably thinks that despite the muddle and the compromises it's better than the status quo. The irony is that, for all its imperfections, you make make a reasonable case arguing that the bill on the table is substantively less liberal than its reputation might lead you to believe.
So Obama should have delayed health care?
On balance, no. Would health care have had a better chance of passing if it had been delayed until this year? I doubt it. Ideally it would have been passed before Christmas; delaying until just before the mid-terms would have invited extra risk. And after the mid-terms? Well, you needn't be a soothsayer to have predicted, in November 2008, that Democrats would enjoy smaller majorities after the mid-terms than before them. It was, I think, Year One or Never.
So it's now Never, right?
Perhaps. It's possible to clear a path for HCR passing but that will require nerve and courage. From Democrats. So don't count on it happening. My own preferences, for what little they're worth, would be to leave HCR to the states. There are problems with that and it delays reform and makes it piecemeal but MA and other states have shown what can be done and my instincts are that they're better placed, in this as in so much else, to respond to their constituents than is the federal government. But of course I'm not a Democrat.
That means Obama should have been bolder?
The notion, heard on the left, that if only Obama had acted more decisively all would be well is bananas. It is very unusual for voters to reject a party because it has been insufficiently extreme or failed to listen to its base enough. If this is true of the GOP it's doubly true for Democrats since self-identified conservatives outnumber self-identified liberals.
What happens next then, eh?
Well, Democrats have a choice: abandon or water down HCR or press on regardless. Neither option is massively attractive. But if the loss of a single Senate seat - even in MA - causes them to abandon HCR and the rest of their agenda then why should the party activists bother fighting hard in November? Pressing ahead will risk passing a bill of questionable popularity; abandoning it invites the party's voters to stay at home and make the mid-terms even worse than they will be anyway.
What about independents?
They're not happy! Many of them are really rather angry. They don't much care for ideological politics and they really don't care for incumbents right now. Brown won independents by an enormous margin. Something similar happened in the VA and NJ gubernatorial races. It's not much fun being in charge in the middle of a recession, is it? Tackling the sense - fair or not - that the government is spending money it doesn't have and can never raise is, I suspect, one obvious and urgent requirement. That's urgent in both a political and an economic sense.
But this shows that the GOP is on the way back?
Again and to some extent, yes. But as we know from British politics there's a difference between a by-election and a general election. Sometimes a shock result is a blip, sometimes a harbinger of things to come.
So which is it this time?
A bit of both! Republicans will reclaim seats this year. It's going to be a tough and bloody year for Democrats. Just like 1982 was for Republicans. But that doesn't mean it has to be as bad as 1994 was for the Donkey party. And the lessons of Reagan and Clinton both show that setbacks in Years One and Two don't have to be fatal. From the GOP perspective, there's a difference between opposition - which the GOP is showing itself to be good at - and opposition that's also preparing for government. A big difference, actually.
What about other parts of the Obama agenda?
Well, I can't see Cap & Trade passing now that centrist Democrats in the Senate (eg, Evan Bayh) have every excuse they need to block it. And you can probably wave goodbye to immigration reform too.
But aren't we just back to the December 2008 status quo? The Democrats have 59 votes in the Senate now as they did then.
Numerically, sure, but psychologically, er, not so much. Things have changed. The President remains more popular than his party. He - and it - might do well to dwell on that and think of ways of leveraging that fact to their mutual advantage.