By Bill Press
Tribune Media Services
Voters of Massachusetts have made big mistakes before. After all, they once elected Mitt Romney governor. But sending Scott Brown to Washington is their biggest mistake yet, the political equivalent of Boston’s disastrous “Big Dig” project.
Yes, it’s hard to believe, but it’s true: A Republican will replace Teddy Kennedy in the U.S. Senate. A political midget, who vows to help kill universal health care, will replace the man who made the fight for health care reform his life’s work. Brown is against everything Kennedy fought for. His election is an insult to the greatest U.S. senator of our lifetime.
How could this have happened in Massachusetts, the bluest of all the blue states? What went wrong?
No matter what right-wing commentators claim, one thing for sure: This special Senate election was not a referendum on President Obama. He won Massachusetts by 26 points in 2008 and still has a high approval rating in the state.
Nor was it a protest against health reform legislation pending in Congress. Bay Staters, in fact, enjoy the only statewide, “government-run,” universal health care program in the country. According to Massachusetts’ lieutenant governor, Tim Murray, the program covers 98 percent of its citizens, 80 percent of whom say they’re happy with it. They don’t oppose extending those same benefits to all 50 states.
No, Martha Coakley lost the Massachusetts race for two reasons. First, because she believed that, having won the Democratic primary, her success in the general election was automatic. She therefore disappeared from view for weeks, failed to define her opponent as the extreme conservative he is before he could define himself as the populist he’s not, and woke up too late to turn things around. Democratic strategists at the White House and on the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee were also either asleep at the switch or taking Massachusetts voters for granted. Big mistake.
Coakley also lost because, in these tough economic times, American voters — more and more of whom have registered as Independents — are angry, frustrated, and impatient. Whenever that happens, they take out their anger on the party in power, which now happens to be Democrats. What worked for Democrats and Barack Obama in 2008 is now working against them.
Responding to Massachusetts, the danger now is that Democrats will overreact and cave in, especially when it comes to health care. It’s already caused a few Democrats to say stupid things. Some, for example, have called for dropping health care reform altogether. Which would leave Democrats in the impossible position of trying to explain to voters in November 2010 how — after controlling the House, Senate, and White House — they could spend 14 months working on health care legislation and come up with: Nothing!
Others have proposed that Democrats start all over again and try to write a bill that will attract Republican votes. Even President Obama suggested that approach to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos: “I would advise that we try to move quickly to coalesce around those elements of the package that people agree on.”
No way! That presumes Republicans will agree to anything. Hasn’t Obama learned anything in his first year? Doesn’t he remember the weeks wasted on the “Gang of Six”? Despite all the time he spent wooing the opposition on health care, Barack Obama received not one single Republican vote on final passage in the House or Senate. This gang of Boehner/McConnell Republicans is not interested in bipartisanship. And Scott Brown won’t change that.
True, what happened in Massachusetts should serve as a wake-up call for Democrats: as long as they get the right message. After the vote, the Website Daily Kos reached out to Obama voters in the Commonwealth: many of whom stayed home, but 18 percent of whom voted for Brown. By a margin of 3-2, those who voted for Brown think the health care bill does “not go far enough.” Eighty-two percent of them support a public plan option. Among stay-at-home Obama voters, the margin of those who think the bill’s too weak increases to 6 to 1, and 86 percent want a strong public option.
So, for Democrats, the real message of Massachusetts is not to get softer, but to get tougher. Forget the Republicans. Forget weak-kneed Senate Democrats. Use reconciliation to pass the strongest possible bill. Put the public plan option back in it. And do it as soon as possible. Health care reform is too important for the American people to let it be derailed by a new face from Massachusetts.
© 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.