Congratulations to Senator-elect Brown – in the end, he was a better candidate and ran a better campaign against the hapless Martha Coakley, who thought she could coast on Kennedy-Obama coat-tails into office. A single statistic explains all – @marcambinder notes that “Coakley had 19 events after the primary through Sunday; Scott Brown had 66.” And more than anything else, the election outcome last night was not because of governing philosophes or political ideologies, but simply the economy, stupid.

The political blogsphere is of course consumed with the significance of MA-SEN as pertains to Obama’s anniversary in office, and the conventional wisdom is gelling across the usual lines. The GOP in full concern-troll mode says that Obama has governed as a leftist and thus must seek bipartisanship; of course it’s precisely because of Republican ideological obstructionism, filibustering every bill in the Senate and negotiating over health care in bad faith, that the Democrats have needed 60 votes to pass any bill instead of a simple majority. Then again, when your 60 vote “super majority” includes Democrats who also negotiate in bad faith, like Joe Lieberman, then you never really had 60 votes to begin with.

The simple truth is that Obama has sought a middle ground on health care insurance reform and pursued a bipartisan approach from the beginning, taking single payer off the table right off the bat, making a (in retrospect, also bad faith) deal with the industry on drug reimportation/price negotiation, and favoring but not drawing the line on a public option. As David Leonhardt points out at the NYT, the health-care reform bills before Congress are substantially more conservative than Bill Clinton’s 1993 bill or even Richard Nixon’s 1971 bill!

Meanwhile, the progressive left, immune to the irony inherent in their own ideological posturing, interpret last night as vindication of their argument that Obama hasn’t been progressive enough. In one sense, they are right – Obama has certainly not been governing as a leftist (in a sane world, this critique by the left wing would serve as sufficent rebuttal to the GOP’s claim that Obama has been too partisan, but…). But they also seem to think that Barack Obama is Howard Dean, when Obama explicitly campaigned as a moderate in all respects. Obama spoke of change, and the progressive Left translated this as “do everything the opposite of Bush” because from their perspective, that Bush was wrong on every decision and policy is an absolute political axiom. (I’m happy to list Bush policies that I agree with in a future post, but not right now).

Last night’s loss by Coakley was Coakley’s fault alone and as I have argued was in no way a referendum on Obama‘s first year in office; it should be noted that Scott Brown even won Ted Kennedy’s home district of Hyannis, which suggests that the MA electorate (which is predominantly Purple, not blue or red) was looking for a Senator who respected them, not one who saw the seat as a birthright. As Mike Allen also noted on MSNBC, Coakley was leading Brown by 15 points only one week ago, which would not have been the case if this were a referendum on Obama or the Democrats.

And yet the race does indeed materially change the political environment under which Obama must labor for his second year. In some ways this is a preview of November, where the Democrats are guaranteed to lose more seats, so at some point Obama was going to have to figure out a way to govern without a supermajority in the Senate anyway. The question is what strategy to use.

The choice facing Obama and the Democratic leadership is to either a. pursue transformative, partisan, progressive-leftist change or b. pursue incrementalist, bipartisan, moderate-liberal change. The progressive netroots are as immune to reason on this as they were about the public option; they think that it’s worth abandoning health care, fighting Quixotic battles over ideological policies and achieving nothing, and maybe even primarying Obama in 2012. In this, they are allied to the Republicans, though they don’t realize it. The only progressive who does understand reality is Chris Bowers.

Obviously I favor choice b. because long ago I realized, by actually paying attention to Obama’s speeches and rhetoric, that this is what he believes in, and the post-MA-SEN political environment essentially makes this the only pragmatic route to getting anything of substance done at all. You can have meaningful health care reform without a public option, you can have meaningful climate change policy without cap and trade, you can have meaningful financial reform without increasing corporate taxes.

In a perfect world, Obama would have been able to pursue bipartisan, transformative change, but that would have required an opposition party with more dedication to the national interest rather than their own political interest. But even 60 seats was an illusion – it was really 59 + Lieberman (who backstabbed Reid), and of the 59 remaining a large bloc are Blue Dog Senators who are fiscal hawks (which most of America, even liberal blue state America, doesn’t see as a bad thing, something progressives don’t seem to really understand).

The political environment for the GOP Senators is also different as well. The threat of a Democratic Supermajority is gone, so the incentive for minority party unity is gone. With the election in November ahead, and Obama’s brilliant decision to make financial sector reform and deficit reduction the next priority, many Republican Senators are going to want to lay claim to partial ownership on these issues to show the voters that they are doing their jobs. The crew at Open Left, Swing State Project, and Congress Matters will break down the 2010 Senate races in obsessive detail over the next few months and it will be clear that there are going to be at least a few Senators (R) who will be very receptive to Obama’s imminent charm offensive.

And doing their jobs is the way that all Congress critters, R or D alike, keep their jobs. Chris Bowers posits a simple hypothetical to everyone out there who thinks otherwise:

If you think the political situation for Democrats would have been better if they had different messaging or passed different legislation, consider a simple hypothetical:

  • Over the past year, instead of saying and doing what they did, Democrats in D.C. and President Obama passed exactly the legislation, and engaged in exactly the sort of messaging, you suggest..
  • Despite doing this, current economic conditions are exactly the same as they are today.

In this hypothetical, if you think the political situation would be any different for Democrats than it is currently, then you are deluding yourself.

Or even more succinctly, “If you are not facing scandals, and times are good, then you will be popular no matter what you pass into law. This is about being in power when times are bad.” The key then is to pass legislation that may not be “perfect” but at least is “good” in that it makes a material differenmce to people’s lives. And that’s not going to happen without bipartisanship. Even if the GOP still refuses en masse to cooperate, then at least the Democrats have a message for November: look, we tried, but the GOP obstructed everything, even deficit reduction and financial sector reform! It’s not like we have a super majority in the Senate to force it through!”

So, what is the bottom line? MA-SEN was no referendum on Obama, but it was a sea change. In many ways it is better that this happened now instead of (inevitably) in November, because we won’t waste the next 12 months seeking mythical 60 vote super majorities and appeasing Lieberman and engaging in pointless negotiations with Snowe. Instead, the illusion is gone, and the Republicans no longer have the cover they did for their nihilistic obstructionism. Obama is freer to seek common ground and find practical, if limited, solutions. To that end it’s worth recalling Obama’s own comments from MLK day this past monday:

…our predecessors were never so consumed with theoretical debates that they couldn’t see progress when it came. Sometimes I get a little frustrated when folks just don’t want to see that even if we don’t get everything, we’re getting something. (Applause.) {Rev. Martin Luther] King understood that the desegregation of the Armed Forces didn’t end the civil rights movement, because black and white soldiers still couldn’t sit together at the same lunch counter when they came home. But he still insisted on the rightness of desegregating the Armed Forces. That was a good first step — even as he called for more. He didn’t suggest that somehow by the signing of the Civil Rights that somehow all discrimination would end. But he also didn’t think that we shouldn’t sign the Civil Rights Act because it hasn’t solved every problem. Let’s take a victory, he said, and then keep on marching. Forward steps, large and small, were recognized for what they were — which was progress.

It’s a bitter irony indeed that progressives, of all people, are the ones who are most opposed to progress today.

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