The message Massachusetts sent Washington tonight was shatteringly loud, but not so clear. A stunning, astonishing reversal for the Democrats. But what does it mean?
Since Brown was a pretty good candidate and Coakley a remarkably bad one, you could argue that it means nothing, really. That is what some Democrats will be inclined to say. (If Joseph Kennedy, nephew of Ted, had run for the seat, Paul Begala said on CNN after the result was announced, the Democrats would have won by a landslide.) Coakley’s awfulness muddles the analysis, but this response smacks of wishful thinking. Obviously, a weak Democratic candidate still ought to have won in such a liberal state. Anyway, even if it were true that this setback is down to one bad candidate, it would be reckless for the party to say so and dismiss it. The Democrats have to show they are paying attention.
The election was all about anger, according to the commentary of the past few days. But what were the voters angry about? The prospect that Democrats in Congress will push through a healthcare bill that a majority of voters (albeit a narrow one) dislikes? This seems less plausible in Massachusetts than it would in most other states, because Massachusetts already has Obamacare lite. Voters there, whatever they may think about the issue – wherever they stand on the pros and cons of mandates and widened coverage, having experienced them – do not have much at stake.
So were they saying they are angry about the economy? Of course. Washington should put its focus on jobs, jobs, jobs. But if that is the message, how are Democrats supposed to respond? More government borrowing, another fiscal stimulus? This cannot be right: polls say voters are also angry about public spending, public debt, and the prospect of higher taxes. The administration cannot create jobs, jobs, jobs, just by saying so. And impotent expressions of concern aren’t going to win many people round.
That leaves anger at the banks and the bail-outs. This is much more promising, and the administration is already on the case. “We want our money back, and we’re going to get it,” the president has said. Just before the Massachusetts contest, Robert Gibbs told reporters that a main theme in 2010 will be asking voters “whether the people they have in Washington are on the side of protecting the big banks, whether they’re on the side of protecting the big oil companies, whether they’re on the side of protecting insurance companies, or whether they’re on the people’s side.” (Careful, it’s a trick question.)
I’m not sure Obama is cut out for Chavez-style populism. It does not sit well with his calm, intellectual demeanour. It just looks false. And that is not the Obama the country elected. I don’t think it will work.
Instead of listening to the left of the party, which wants him to toughen up his anti-capitalist line, I’d like Obama to listen to the independents who seem to have shifted in droves to the Republican side in Massachusetts. Hear the message this way: “You promised to change the way Washington works. You promised to force the parties to work together, and to make policy in the open. You promised to stop the back-room deals. You broke your word. You gave us Washington as usual, only more so. It’s trench warfare on Capitol Hill, and you surrendered your leadership to partisan Democrats. You went along with their stimulus plans, and you are ready to go along with their healthcare reform. You gave us a crippled, polarised Congress, and political horse-trading at its most squalid. Do something about it.”