Scott Brown’s victory in the Massachusetts special election to fill the US Senate seat left vacant by the death of Teddy Kennedy may be the best thing to happen to Barack Obama in his first year as president. If Team Obama takes the right lessons from Mary Coakley’s dramatic fall from virtual shoe-in for the post to also-ran, that is.
Today is one year since President Obama took office. Obama inherited the worst economic climate of any president in a long time, arguably since FDR took over the reins of power from Herbert Hoover. It’s been a wild and tumultuous year, politically speaking. The president has pushed forward on a number of major issues, and though he hasn’t accomplished all he promised to do in his first term, he’s gotten a decent start. Not a perfect start, but that is partly due to factors beyond his control (like Congress). No president will ever be able to deliver on every campaign promise, nor will he (or someday, she) ever be able to completely control the legislation that comes out of Congress.
To expect either of those outcomes is naïve. But at the same time, we should be able to expect that our elected leaders will listen to the will of the people, and in the fall of 2008, the clear message was that we’ve had enough of how things had been going the previous eight years. We had a full-bore financial meltdown. It was clear where the problems came from, and those problems have only partly been addressed. The bailouts handed to the banks, insurance companies and investment houses that brought the world’s economy to its knees was only part of the solution. An expensive part, and one that we didn’t get the best deal on. But it was also clear that the financial services industry needed tighter regulation, to keep the forces of unbridled greed in check.
There’s a popular discontent at the cost of the bailouts and the economic stimulus package. Understandably so. It’s cost a huge amount of money, and impatient lot that we are, the economy didn’t turn around overnight. Which makes a whole lot of people anxious and upset.
And though President Obama inherited the worst mess in a long, long time, at this point, he owns the mess. It’s right to remember whose policies got us to the brink of catastrophe, but those people are no longer running the show. (In theory, at least, although the financial industry seems to have a huge amount of clout even today.) We expect clear leadership and a clear vision of how to get to where we need to go.
Perhaps the biggest lesson from yesterday’s election is that despite their dominance in Massachusetts politics, the Democratic Party can ill afford to be complacent. By all accounts, Scott Brown’s win yesterday was as much about the underdog campaign he ran as it was about the poorly managed campaign that Coakley waged. That’s of little comfort to party regulars, I suspect, given that the election is lost and the Democrats no longer have a “supermajority” in the Senate.
But they still hold an 18-seat advantage over the Republicans in that august chamber of legislative deliberations. Which, as Jon Stewart pointed out a couple of nights ago, is still a larger majority than the Republicans ever had under George W. Bush. And yet, during the Bush years the Republicans managed to push all sorts of bills through Congress on any number of legislative initiatives and issues. Surely there’s a lesson in there, somewhere.
Without the supermajority, the Democrats may have to work harder to accomplish heath care reform, or to re-regulate the financial services industry, but with 58 Democratic Senators, it should still be possible to craft some policies that will eventually pass — even if a few nominal Democrats (like Joe Lieberman) were to bolt the coalition.
Without the supermajority, the Democrats cannot be complacent, a lesson immediately apparent from Coakley’s loss. They need to keep an eye on the things that need to be done (jump-starting new job creation, chief among them) and keep focused on correcting the economic and financial mess that we still find ourselves in.
With or without the supermajority, the Democrats need to keep their ears to the ground about what their constituents want. At the same time, they need to be brave enough to do the things that need to be done, even when some of those actions may not be all that popular. That’s a tall order for politicians who think in terms of being re-elected, rather than in terms of what the country really needs. (And it’s a lesson that’s just as true for their Republican counterparts, too.)
Massachusetts, it is said, has a more progressive health care system than either version of health care reform passed by Congress last year. It would be a huge irony if their newly-elected Senator was the deciding vote in whether or not health care reform happens. For the Republicans, there’s a danger in filibustering every issue that comes before the Senate, even if they succeed at blocking health care reform. Despite whatever political points they may score in the short run, the filibuster is not an effective solution to our country’s problems. Without real alternate policies, the GOP will remain the “Party of No.” And that could cost them in future elections.
Scott Brown’s victory heralds either the end of the beginning of the Obama presidency, or the beginning of the end. Which it will be depends on just what lessons the president and his team take from yesterday’s election.