Today, Massachusetts votes for a Senator to replace Ted Kennedy in a special election scheduled on the eve of President Obama’s first anniversary in office. The expectation is, to put it bluntly, that Republican challenger Scott Brown will probably defeat incumbent Martha Coakley (who is running for Sen. Ted Kennedy’s seat after his passing last winter). The immediate impact of a Coakley loss would be to reduce the Democratic coalition by one, from a filibuster-proof 60 to merely 59. The thinking goes that this imperils President Obama’s entire governing agenda, kills health care reform, and is a preview of further losses this November (where the Dems are already expected to lose seats in both the House and the Senate).
The spin from the right is that a Coakley defeat is a victory for the oppressed masses who reject Obama’s socialist agenda and vindication of the Tea Party movement. But a Brown victory is more likely to come from depressed Democratic turnout, and a split independent vote, than any conservative surge. Brown himself is only a transient darling of the conservatives for the black eye he will give Obama; the moment he casts his first pro-choice vote, he’ll be labeled a RINO. That’s the reality of blue-state politics.
The question is, why is the Democratic base depressed? The spin from the left is that Obama hasn’t been liberal enough. In this argument, Obama’s failures to close Guantanamo immediately, put the single-payer reform on the table, etc – basically, Obama’s failure in their eyes to govern as a far-left ideological progressive instead of the center-left liberal pragmatist he has been his whole life and actually campaigned as – is the cause.
And yet, as I have argued before, it is precisely the far left who have failed to learn the central lesson of the Bush era – that ideology is the antithesis of policy. The change that Obama talked about bringing to Washington was not a promise of knee-jerk reactionism to Bush, and govern purely in ABB mode. Rather, it was to stop ideological governance entirely and bring an intellectual, pragmatic, and principled Administration to power in the hope and belief that genuine progress on our various policy ills can be found. But what progressives demand instead is a repeat of the Bush era, only skewed the other way. Yes, that too would technically be Change, but not Hope. Certainly that sort of change is nothing to believe in.
The true culprit of a Coakley loss is that the independent vote – who represent a majority of registered voters in Massachusetts and the silent majority of citizens in the United States as a whole – was lost. Not by Obama per se but by the very far left who sought to turn every victory into a defeat. The battle for the public option is a perfect example of this, which is a case study for the aphorism, “the perfect is the enemy of the good.”
So, is MA-SEN a referendum on Obama? The far left has already concluded it is, and will seek to push Obama further left. But in many ways, the loss of the 60 vote majority is freedom for Obama. No longer does Joe Lieberman have veto rights over the agenda; a Republican like Brown is someone who might actually be willing to work across the aisle. With 59 seats the validation of Obama’s strategy to seek common ground is a reality – and a neccessity. And Obama would have had to seek this common ground in November anyway; as the Dems woudl surely have lost seats then too. But now, he has a year to really show how much he can do.
This race isn’t a referendum on Obama’s past, it’s a liberation instead. Moderate Republicans like Snowe and Brown will now be empowered the way Lieberman was to defy their party. And it is they who have incentive to help Obama deliver now, because with a 41 seat minority, the GOP can no longer claim that the Democrats own everything. Their political strategy of threatening a filibuster on every vote now has teeth – which means that failure to find common ground really is theirs as much as Obama’s – and possibly even more.
(and for what it’s worth – a Coakley loss could even strengthen the progressive left on healthcare, if the Democratic leadership is willing to use reconciliation. But if they aren’t you could see the House vote on the Senate bill verbatim ,which would be a huge blow to the progressives.)
Related, Bernard Avishai makes a passionate case in defense of Obama’s governance, and I think the all-too-appropriate title of his post is probably emblematic of a fundamental paradox at the heart of our politics. Avishai offered brief commentary on the Coakley race in the same vein this morning. Also, Chris Bowers rejects the spin and says it’s the economy, stupid. And John Cole bemoans the misuse of the Overton Window.