It was a wipeout in Massachusetts Tuesday night which few saw coming. Republican state Sen. Scott Brown won a decisive victory over Attorney General Martha Coakley. Coakley conceded, with only 75 percent of precincts counted, in the contest to fill the unexpired term of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. This happened in a state which Obama carried by 26 points in 2008 and in which Democrats enjoy a 3:1 registration advantage over Republicans.
I had thought, right up to the end, that the state's experienced Democratic organization would pull it out for Coakley. But the race was not even close. Turnout in heavily Democratic Boston was disappointing. It was especially disappointing in black precincts — only two days after President Barack Obama had campaigned in the city for Coakley.
A short version of what happened can be read in my Wall Street Journal essay of last July 17, which warned that Obama sorely needed a mid-year course correction returning him to his campaign themes of 2008, when campaign he pledged to end polarization and to govern across party lines; and he needed to abandon a hard one-party governing strategy that threatened to cost Democratic congressional incumbents dearly this coming November.
The Massachusetts election turned into a referendum on Obama and his agenda. Nearly a quarter of state Democrats voted for Brown; a vast majority of independent voters did. Election-day interviews and surveys found that even lifelong Democrats who had voted for Obama in 2008 went for Brown yesterday. As one such voter said: "This administration is arrogant and determined to push an agenda down our throats that we do not want." That perception cost Massachusetts its "Kennedy seat" in the Senate.
Now, the aftermath. If you look at the numbers, Democrats still hold 57 Senate seats to the 41 held by Republicans. Two Independents caucus with Democrats and normally vote with them. They hold a decisive majority in the House. Yet, after last night, everything will change.
Starting with the health-care dilemma: The administration and Democratic congressional leaders face an immediate decision about pending health-care legislation now that Democrats no longer command the 60 votes necessary to cut off debate and force a Senate floor vote. Democratic "hawks" argue that Brown's swearing-in should be delayed so that interim Massachusetts Sen. Paul Kirk, rather than Brown, might cast a vote for passage of a health bill. But that approach almost certainly will be rejected by a majority of Democratic Senators and House members. They would see it as a killing issue in their reelection campaigns this fall.
Others suggest a strategy whereby only 51, rather than 60, Senate votes would be necessary to pass the legislation. That would entail separating elements of the legislation, however, and could prove risky. Another option would be to step back, add provisions acceptable to Republicans and independents, and come back in a few weeks with a fresh health-care plan.
There is no good answer to the health-care dilemma. It will take at least a few days for the White House and congressional Democrats to absorb the implications of Tuesday night and to weigh available options. They will need to come up with a strategy before next Wednesday (Jan. 27) when Obama will deliver his State of the Union message.
One option sure to be rejected: That, after a year of struggle, Democrats should simply withdraw their proposal — as President Clinton, for instance, withdrew his health-care proposal in 1994. Not an easy problem. We shall see the course chosen when Obama speaks next week.
Next comes the political dilemma: Now that Democrats have lost statewide races in Virgina, New Jersey, and Massachusetts (all of which Obama carried strongly in 2008), how can they avert a disaster in off-year elections this November, a time when the unemployment rate is expected to remain near 10 percent and casualties to be rising in Afghanistan?
Some 49 Democratic House members must seek reelection this fall in districts carried in 2008 by Sen. John McCain. Some of them, no doubt, will choose not to seek reelection. Others, such as Washington Rep. Brian Baird, already have opted out in districts carried by Obama. Democratic control of the House is in jeopardy. In the Senate, Republicans are unlikely to gain a majority, but the Democratic majority could be reduced to only three or four votes. If that were to happen, the last two years of Obama's presidential term would effectively be blocked.
Republicans will enjoy a fundraising boom in the wake of Tuesday's Massachusetts surprise, and new candidates are likely to step forward in congressional races they might otherwise have forgone.
One year after his inaugural, and overwhelming public approval, President Obama and his agenda presently are at an historic low point. The game is not over, however. I expect Obama to take the offensive in his State of the Union address next week — but on a revised agenda responding to the resounding message sent by Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts voters. That agenda would include populist measures to be taken against Wall Street firms tied to the financial crisis; strong new financial regulation; a new pledge of fiscal restraint and deficit reduction; and a willingness to adjust his domestic agenda toward entitlement-spending reform.
There is an ebb-and-flow in politics. When one party or another is perceived as overreaching or being out of tune with the electorate, voters take corrective action. They did it in midterm elections in 1994 when, for the first time in 40 years, Republicans took control of the House. Only a few years later the pendulum swung the other way and voters restored Democrats to dominance in both Senate and House.
Republicans will gain congressional seats this November. But will they achieve an historic sweep, effectively crippling the Obama presidency, or will they make only normal mid-term gains? We shall see how Obama rises to this challenge next Wednesday.