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The Massachusetts special election in graph form


That graph is from Joshua Tucker, and it's worth thinking about a bit. The reaction to the Massachusetts special election is obviously about the grim prospects of 2010 rather than the loss of one seat. The psychological impact on congressional Democrats of losing Ted Kennedy's seat is akin to the impact Lehman's fall had on Wall Street -- it means nobody is safe.

But this is, still, just the loss of one seat, in one race. Martha Coakley's campaign was a carousel of gaffes and lethargy. Scott Brown ran a skilled effort presenting himself as a handsome independent. The difference between the two candidates was about 100,000 votes. That's not to deny the obvious role that dissatisfaction with Obama, the Democrats, and the state of the country played in this race. But I don't know anyone -- literally, anyone -- who doesn't believe a better Democratic candidate could have held the seat in Massachusetts.

For that reason, perceptions really are everything here. And Democrats seem determined to lose control of them. If Democrats had pointed to something like the graph above, lamented losing such an important seat due to the failures of their woeful candidate, but shrugged it off and promised to take it back in 2010, this would still be a big story, but the media would be hard-pressed to make it a big deal. If Democrats had reacted to Brown's victory by angrily attacking the Republicans for holding up and continually distorting the party's central legislative initiative, it would have been trivially easy to explain the Massachusetts special election in terms of how important it is for Democrats to pass health-care reform, rather than how important it is for them to wait. And if Democrats were still en route to passing health care next week, the Brown story would seen be on its way out of the headlines.

Instead, Democrats, with 59 votes in the Senate and a 40-vote margin in the House, seem ready to treat Brown's election as if they just lost the majority. That's in their head, of course, rather than in last night's election results. But if they don't get out of that mindset, then it's pretty sure to be in November's election results.

By Ezra Klein  |  January 20, 2010; 8:56 AM ET
Categories:  2010 Midterms  
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Next: 'Think of everything you could do while serving in Congress. Would any single act be bigger than this?'


Will the election of Scott Brown force Democrats to shelve the idea of death panels in the new health care bill?

Posted by: edwardallen54 | January 20, 2010 9:06 AM | Report abuse

The lesson here is that Democrats need to craft legislation, including HCR, that their constituents like. Instead of creating a mess of giveaways to corporate interests, they need to think about what will actually help ordinary Americans--you know the people who vote in elections.

Posted by: AuthorEditor | January 20, 2010 9:13 AM | Report abuse

Again, Ezra, this is disingenuous: you spent months cheerleading the 60-vote strategy, parroting the administration's line that the PO should go if Lieberman and Nelson thought it should go, etc., all those concessions the base was forced to make in order to ensure passage of a GOP-friendly bill. I hope and pray Congress plays ping-pong fast but am not the least bit surprised that they're about to fold. The math was never there, nor was the political will to force an actual read-from-the-phonebook filibuster or a better bill via reconciliation.

Posted by: scarlota | January 20, 2010 9:24 AM | Report abuse

Even with counting Brown, Democrats have one more Senate seat now than they did a year ago. Obama started his presidency without Democratic Senators Specter and Franken.

This wholesale freaking out is unseemly and politically unproductive. I'm reminded of something Josh Marshall used to write about a lot: that the American people will not trust people to stand up for them if they don't stand up for themselves.

Posted by: mainer2 | January 20, 2010 9:24 AM | Report abuse

End of life counseling did not cost Coakley the election, so probably not.

The lesson to Democrats would seem to be that trying to make these super-big changes, all in one fell swoop, are doomed to fail, and what you're going to end up with is a tiny percentage of what they wanted, if anything, and none of the good stuff. How much likelier would it have been to expand SCHIP up to cover children through age 30 and expand Medicare to cover those 55 and older and the unemployed? And just be done for the time being? No mandates, no "death panels", no penalties for not buying insurance, etc. If there was a clear lesson from Clinton healthcare, it's that huge legislation, crafted largely away from the eyes of the public, that seeks to micromanage to healthcare industry in addition to expanding coverage is likely to fail.

Also, having to buy off Nebraska and Louisiana was also a bad sign.

Still, no matter how the Democrats respond at this point, this is a bad sign for Democrats who are currently in traditionally Republican seats or red states. Most safe Democrat seats are still safe, surely. But where Democrats won big in 2006 and 2008, taking seats away from Republicans--those are the folks who do need to be shaking in their boots, thanks to this election.

Still, when it comes down to it, elections are about the candidates. It's the candidate, stupid! And Coakley didn't cut it. She didn't even come close. So the other guy won. She kind of reminds me of John McCain, that way.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | January 20, 2010 9:24 AM | Report abuse

BTW, as a rock-ribbed conservative, I'm delighted by the Democrats freaking out, as much as I am pleased, if not more so, by Scott Brown's win. They should think about that.

The victory is more in the Democrats general reaction than in Scott Brown's specific victory.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | January 20, 2010 9:27 AM | Report abuse

It appears to me that in lieu of howling at the moon you decided to write a series of posts asserting that Brown's election is no big deal. Howling would have been more fun, and you're wrong. It's unambiguously a big deal: 59, instead of 60; and Ted Kennedy's seat in Massachusetts.

Posted by: ostap666 | January 20, 2010 10:24 AM | Report abuse

Dems get a shot at Brown in 2012, not 2010. With a plausible candidate, they should be able to replace him. 100,000 votes is not a lot -- unless they give the contest away. Don't know if Massachusetts can offer a plausible candidate.

Posted by: janinsanfran | January 20, 2010 10:33 AM | Report abuse

Brown's election is not the problem but rather a symptom of it. The problem is bad policymaking. What do the Dems expect when they push policies opposed by the majority of Americans -- healthcare, cap-and-trade, and massive deficit spending? Add in the fact that the people's #1 priority, the economy, is not being convincingly handled.
The Brown win is a helpful wake-up call. It gives the Dems time to right the ship before the mid-terms. Put the party's left-wing back on the shelf and let the moderates run the show. That is the recipe for Dem success. Whether Obama can do this will determine his reelection or defeat in 2012. Ask Bill Clinton.

Posted by: chris_zz | January 20, 2010 10:56 AM | Report abuse

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