The Vote Heard ‘Round The Beltway

Last night, in what was paradoxically an upset that felt increasingly inevitable, Republican state senator Scott Brown defeated Democratic Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley in the special election to fill the seat vacated by the late Edward Kennedy. This vote is being described as a “game-changer” because it deprives the Democrats of their filibuster-proof 60 seat majority in the Senate, which leaves the future of much of President Obama’s legislative agenda, including healthcare, in doubt.

In the wake of this stunning turn of events, I have granted myself the following exclusive interview, which represents nothing more than an interested outsider’s point of view:

Q: Wow! How did the Democrats manage to lose Ted Kennedy’s seat?

A: Well, it wasn’t easy. Martha Coakley, as it turned out, was a rather poor candidate, and thoroughly unprepared for a fight. As the only woman in the Democratic primary, she was treated with kid gloves by her male opponents. According to the Boston Globe, “Throughout the primary, Coakley’s three male opponents were wary of appearing too aggressive. Early in the campaign, when US Representative Michael E. Capuano called her “cautious,’’ his remarks were called sexist by (state Senate President Therese) Murray…From that point on, none of Coakley’s challengers attacked her with any vigor.” Democrats just assumed (not without reason) that whoever won the primary would win the seat in a cakewalk, and so Coakley was anointed. Scott Brown didn’t hesitate to attack her, and her response was to go on vacation. Soon, Brown had cast himself as the everyman candidate, and Coakley as the tool of the system. Before the Democrats recognized what was happening, the race had gotten away from them.

Q: OK, but the Democrats still have 59 out of 100 U.S. Senators, why is this a big deal?

A: The Senate has a wonderful, time-worn tradition called the filibuster. A filibuster is basically just a rule that says the Senate needs 60 votes to forcibly stop debate and move on to a vote. If a bill is coming up for a vote, and the losing side has at least 40 votes, they can essentially hold Senate business hostage by refusing to end the debate. At that point, the bill must be either put aside or tabled (killed). It’s a great procedural maneuver that gives the minority some leverage, and it’s been used effectively by both sides over the years. James Stewart’s classic 1939 movie, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, is most vividly remembered for its filibuster scene. The Republicans now have enough votes to filibuster again, jeopardizing the Obama agenda.

Q: So what happens to the healthcare bill?

A: That’s anybody’s guess right now. The Senate passed a version that is very different from the version passed by the House. The only way that the Democrats can avoid having to deal with a potential filibuster in the Senate is to get the House to accept the Senate version without changes, and that seems very unlikely. There’s been talk of trying to rush something through before Scott Brown is sworn in, but I doubt that any Democrat up for reelection this year would have the stomach for that. What may end up happening is that the bill gets separated into small, bite-sized chunks, and the pieces that can be agreed upon would then survive. This would allow the President and the Democrats to claim that they kept their promise of healthcare reform, even if it is only limited reform.

Q: So, is this the beginning of a Republican comeback?

A: Not necessarily. There were a lot of factors in play in Massachusetts, not the least of which was the electorate’s desire to “send Washington a message.” If the Democrats are smart, and return to a populist, centrist position on national issues, and if they can change their focus from healthcare to job creation, there’s still time to recapture the agenda. What they can’t afford to do anymore is to appear arrogant, like they did in Massachusetts. One thing that Americans hate is when one party lords over them.

Q: What does this mean for President Obama?

A: It means he must proceed with extreme caution. If he overreacts and begins to cave in on every issue, he’ll be seen as a lame duck by his own party, and he’ll alienate his base. If he goes the other way and becomes more aggressive in pushing his agenda, he risks appearing arrogant in the face of voter anger. In both cases, the Democrats would pay heavily in the Congressional midterms this November. In 1994, Bill Clinton faced a similar crisis and successfully reinvented himself as a centrist; Obama doesn’t have to reinvent himself just yet, but he must heed the danger signs ahead.

Whatever happens, those of us who follow politics as sport are in for a fun ride.

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