Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Win, Lose, or Draw: Lessons from the MA Special Election

Massachusetts goes to the polls today in a special election to fill Sen. Ted Kennedy’s seat. To the great surprise of, well, everyone, this election is actually competitive. Scott Brown, a little known Republican State Senator—that phrase has been used so frequently in recent weeks that it can longer possibly be true—has given Martha Coakley a run for her money. Though at one time polls had Coakley up 30 points over Brown, FiveThirtyEight’s model now gives Brown 3:1 odds to be the victor.

Win or lose, Coakley’s campaign—like Deed’s campaign in Virginia last year—offers important lessons for the Democrats going into the midterm election. Unfortunately, without exit polls, it will be difficult to construct an extensive post-mortem on the campaign. However, it seems that we can already draw two lessons: 1) don’t take elections for granted; 2) Congress must get something done.

As to the first point, lest we forget Coakley is running to fill Ted Kennedy’s seat. In Massachusetts. And there is a very real possibility that she will lose. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the importance of this point. The lack of intensity, the lack of campaigning, and the lack of focus on this race has let Scott Brown become the favorite to win. Clearly, if Democrats are vulnerable in Massachusetts, they are vulnerable anywhere. Were I the RNC, I would throw money at every Congressional race in the country coming out of today.

As to the second point, Democrats, it’s clear that we are going to sink or swim together. The last year has been a terrible example of our party’s inability to control the message. The American people appear to be frustrated with Congress’s performance and its seeming inability to get anything done. Stop playing to the Republican’s message that Democrats can’t be trusted to govern: put a healthcare bill on President Obama’s desk; confirm the outstanding administration appointees; speak in consonance as a caucus about the issues confronting the nation. Without both tangible results and a coherent defense of Congressional action for the next 10 months, the midterm election will be a disaster. We may be nostalgic for 1994 at the end of this cycle.


Colin said...

Not get anything done? Ben, give Obama and Congress some credit. On his watch 15 pieces of major legislation have been passed according to wikipedia:


Dubya never passed more than 11 in one year, and only 13 his first two years combined.

There may be more than one reason why voters are upset, but a lack of legislation or Congressional action doesn't seem to be one of them. In fact, the more legislation is passed the more the president's approval numbers seem to decline. Is anyone *really* voting against Coakley because Dems aren't moving fast enough on health care? The notion might be comforting if you are a Democratic partisan, but it simply defies logic that voters will vote in Republicans because Democratic are too busy trying to reconcile Senate and House version of health care.

The far more plausible explanation is simply that voters don't like the Democratic agenda and intrusive government (a variation on this explanation: http://cafehayek.com/2010/01/maybe-the-dogs-dont-like-it.html). We've seen this show before. Democrats also pursued a left-wing agenda in 1993-94 which consisted of, among other things, tax increases, gun control and government-run health care. We all know how that turned out.

Bill Clinton, meanwhile, spent his last six years in office signing welfare reform, a capital gains tax cut, and banking and telecom deregulation. He was also reasonably popular.

If the Democrats want to pursue an agenda of deregulation, tax cuts, and reducing government entitlements I'm glad to hear it. But if they continue working to advance an agenda which is increasingly unpopular, they shouldn't be surprised when they reap the whirlwind in November.

Ben said...

"The far more plausible explanation is simply that voters don't like the Democratic agenda and intrusive government"

Yeah, that's a comforting notion if you're a Republican partisan, Colin. The problem with what the Democrats have gotten done is that it hasn't been trumpeted--I'd argue that most voters are unaware of the majority of the things that the Democrats have gotten. One major factor driving that lack of awareness is the persistent of the Healthcare reform process and its ability to dominate the agenda and blot out everything else.

Democrats win next November by passing Healthcare and having the economy rebound. Democrats do not win by stopping work. No, the only thing that accomplishes is giving the GOP yet another cudgel with which to beat Democrats. And to convince certain parts of the party that watering down progressive agenda items is the way to go.

Colin said...

Why is passing an unpopular piece of legislation going to save the Democrats? Especially keeping in mind that the costs/taxes of the health care plan are immediate while the benefits don't begin until 2013 as I recall.

To me it simply defies sense that if you pass an unpopular piece of legislation that people will like you more. I really don't understand the logic here.

I completely understand the Democratic desire to pass health care reform, given that the chance is likely to never pass again. I don't understand it, however, as a means of restoring the party's standing.

Doubling down on an unpopular platform is not the key to electoral success.

Ben said...

Well, your presumption that it's unpopular is, I think, unfounded. Yes, I know you'll point to polling data saying that it is unpopular but Nate Silver did a good job a few months ago debunking this notion. Likely, most voters don't know what's in the healthcare reform package and, before the seemingly never ending process and negative press, healthcare reform was popular.

At any rate, the longer this drags on the more political capital it consumes and the less popular (the Democratic) Congress becomes. Finishing it (one way or another) and moving onto other things on the agenda would be a good way to change the conversation.

Colin said...

Well, your presumption that it's unpopular is, I think, unfounded.

Unfounded? The polls say it is unpopular. Scott Brown just won by running against it. Democratic politicians -- who presumably are self-interested in remaining in office -- are backing away from it. Even a liberal like Joan Vennochi admits voters are rejecting the Democratic agenda (http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2010/01/21/the_tipping_point_for_the_voters/).

I'm not sure all of that is explained away by a Nate Silver analysis. You can make a great argument that opposition to health care reform is driven by ignorance and lies, but that doesn't mean it's any less real.

Healthcare reform was popular before the process began because it was amorphous and lacked substance. Hell, *I'm* in favor of reforming our system. But when it started to move from the abstract to reality support rapidly diminished as details became known.

Similarly, people might favor Social Security reform in the abstract -- until they figure out it might involve reduced benefits. Shrub certainly found that one out. I'm sure tax reform and simplification could be a popular agenda item -- until people realize its means eliminating their mortgage interest deduction. Examples are endless.

I absolutely agree with you that Democrats need to shift the conversation away from health care. I am convinced, however, that passage of a bill similar to what is currently circulating in Congress will be electoral suicide. Health care will not suddenly be forgotten by the public and be off the table come November should it be passed.