Perfect Storms Do Happen
This item is crossposted from ProgressiveFix.
Progressives looking at yesterday’s results from Massachusetts would be wise to avoid over-interpretation. Republicans naturally are spinning Scott Brown’s victory as one of the most epochal events in political history, and as a “message” to President Obama that he needs to abandon pretty much everything he is trying to do. And just as naturally, Democrats with varying grievances about the way that the administration or the congressional leadership are comporting themselves will find vindication in so visible and startling a party defeat.
Scott Winship’s post notwithstanding, the reality remains that the segment of Massachusetts voters who went to the polls yesterday were not setting themselves up as a national focus group on the Obama administration generally or a specific issue like health care reform. They chose between two candidates. As Nate Silver reminded readers last night, the desire to find a single explanation for Brown’s victory is almost certainly misguided. Yes, the national political environment (itself heavily affected by the struggling economy as much as or more than anything the president or his party have or haven’t done) undoubtedly contributed to the outcome; but so, too, did the vast disparity between the quality of the two campaigns; and so, too, did factors unique to Massachusetts, most notably long-simmering resentment of a dominant but complacent state Democratic Party (reflected almost perfectly by Martha Coakley’s complacent campaign), and the existence of a health care system that enabled Scott Brown to promise to shoot down almost identical national reforms with impunity.
I’d add to Nate’s analysis the point that timing made a lot of difference to the outcome. Had the election been held a week later, it’s likely that the “wake-up call” to Democrats provided by radically worsening poll numbers would have bestirred the Coakley campaign to get moving earlier; a Rasmussen exit poll suggested that she actually gained ground in the last few days. And without question, the fact that this special election occurred at an especially late and sensitive moment in the national health reform debate made Brown’s campaign a source of intense excitement for Republicans nationally and in Massachusetts, which helped him raise vast sums of money quickly, and pre-energized GOP voters.
So this really was in many respects a “perfect storm” for the Republican candidate, and no one pointing that out should be accused of rationalizing a painful defeat for Democrats. Still, part of the outcome was attributable to the national political environment. But it’s not clear that Brown’s election added a whole lot to our understanding of that dynamic. As John Judis pointed out this morning, we already knew that Barack Obama has a persistent problem connecting with non-college-educated older white voters, who happen to turn out disproportionately in non-presidential elections. We also knew that the approval ratings of presidents tend to be affected in ways that are difficult to overcome by high levels of unemployment. We already knew that we were in an environment of toxic hostility to the political status quo. And we knew that a majority of Americans don’t much like the pending federal health care reform legislation, though nothing like a majority supports the Republican proposition that the status quo in health care is acceptable.
In other words, the Massachusetts results confirmed much of what we already knew about the tough but negotiable road ahead for the administration and its agenda. And even though the GOP has a bright new star in Scott Brown (who nonetheless probably won’t be reelected to a full term in 2012 given a normal presidential turnout in Massachusetts), it didn’t change the fact that the Republican Party itself is in greater disrepute than any other political institution in the country.
Brown’s election does, of course, create an immediate and difficult challenge to the final enactment of health care reform in Congress. But it’s surmountable if progressives keep their eyes on the prize and refuse to panic or point fingers at each other. I couldn’t agree more with Will Marshall’s point about the perversity of letting the Massachusetts results deny the country the same reforms that Massachusetts voters, not to mention their new senator, seem to like. And I hope congressional Democrats think about Jonathan Chait’s argument that they’ve already taken the risk of voting for health care reform, and would be monumentally foolish to abandon their efforts now.
Sure, yesterday’s results were significant and worth analyzing. But let’s wait a while before adjudging them as an event with huge consequences beyond Massachusetts.