Last night Martha Coakley, the Democratic candidate for Massachusetts Senate, lost by 5 points a race that just weeks ago everyone was declaring hers by right. And even before the polls closed it seemed like everyone was playing the blame game.
Coakley’s team and the White House pointed the fingers at each other. Some are blaming the economy, the excellence of Republican candidate Scott Brown (our first centrefold Senator, history should note), or Coakleys repeated Red Sox related gaffs. There’s even a “Drunk Electorate” theory. All of these factors surely played some part.
I’d add in that to some extent you should blame me. Well, me and the thousands of other Democratic activists like me who were so late to get moving on this race, and so complacent when we finally did. Just a couple of weeks ago, Democrats were openly talking of this Senate seat, which was inhabited by the late, great, Senator Ted Kennedy for over 40 years, as if it was a territorial protectorate of the Democratic party. While Scott Brown’s campaign was diligently building an outstanding on the ground operation, including channelling the energy from a fired up local Republican party who had already identified this race as of critical national importance, Democrats had mentally moved on and were barely even campaigning.
Even when we did get moving we didn’t seem to grasp the nature of the problem – my fellow Democratic stalwarts and I finally got serious and got busy in this election just a few days ago, but our focus was on “getting out our vote”. So I made hundreds of phone calls to Democratic voters to get them to the polls. But it turns out that they weren’t “our voters” after all – registered Democrats voted in large numbers for Scott Brown, and we never gave them a compelling reason not to. Coakley’s gaffes compared with Brown’s discipline, Coakley’s machine politician aura matched against Brown’s insurgent energy, Coakley’s sheer unwillingness to campaign compared with Brown’s relentlessness: these threats should have been clear to us much earlier. Perhaps even before we nominated her in the primary. And when they did become clear, we (and she) should have made a positive case FOR her, not just an argument about the horrors of losing.
Although losing is, it turns out, really horrible.
In the coming days, we’ll enter a phase known to political scientists as “panic.” With the Republicans having gained a 41st Senate seat, Democrats no longer have the 60 votes there that are needed to prevent a procedural filibuster of the final vote on health care reform. Already some members of Congress are talking about abandoning the nearly-complete health care process out of some misguided sense of democratic accountability. Suicide. Let’s nip that one in the bud right here:
A 59 vote Senate majority is still a massive mandate. Indeed, the horrifically unequal nature of the Senate means that the Senators representing those state represent an overwhelming percent of the US population. You Lib Dems must understand a thing or two about frustratingly unequal voting representation.
There is still a procedural path to health care reform now. Firstly, Scott Brown doesn’t take office for another 15 days – that’s how long it takes Massachusetts to issue a certificate of election. If we can get a revised bill through both houses of Congress in that time, then the modified bill that the House and Senate Leadership have been working on can pass without obstruction. If not – and frankly it’s unlikely – then our option is for the House to pass the bill that has already been passed by the Senate, without amendment. The legislation would then move immediately to the President for signature. It’s worth saying that I think the Senate bill is a worse bill than the House one in many respects, but it’s still a hell of a lot better than none.
And passing health care reform is still the right thing to do. The voters of Massachusetts already have universal health care – we’re the one state in the union that does. But the rest of the country is hurting. We pay more for health care than anyone else in the world, and are not healthier. The urgency of this reform has not abated, and will only get worse as time goes on – with costs continuing to rise, our public sector health programs (which already cost us more per capita than the NHS even though we don’t cover anyone – and don’t get me started on the insanity of THAT) will be bankrupt soon.
Obama’s been in an impossible position over the last many months, trying to negotiate a complex insider effort with Congress to get through the best bill he can. But the cost of this has been a disengagement with the general public, who are increasingly out of work, worried, and watching what looks like a shambolic Washington game play out. We need to get back to basics – to talk to the voters again, and not just to Congress. We need to pass health care reform AND we need to tell people why – that this is going to be part of helping them recover their financial security.
I believe that passing health care reform will help the Democrats politically – for the simplest of reasons: people like winners.
But there’s more than a political dimension at play here. There’s a question of right and wrong. Surrendering at the final hurdle when we have the means and opportunity to save and improve people’s lives would be craven. Even more than winning, I want us to deserve to win.
So I stand bloodied but unbowed. Democrats need to regroup quickly and start solving the country’s problems. And we must never, ever, take our voters for granted again.
Karin J. Robinson is Vice Chair of Democrats Abroad UK and was a Regional Field Director for Americans Abroad during the Obama campaign. Karin was born and raised in Massachusetts, and has been living in the UK for 10 years. She blogs at www.obamalondon.blogspot.com