|Stuck between Barack, hard place|
By now, everyone knows that Scott Brown (R) did the unimaginable last week. Senator-Elect Scott Brown defeated Massachusetts Attorney General (D) Martha Coakley for the seat left by the 'Lion of the Senate' Edward "Teddy" Kennedy (D).
Forget that this seat had been held for 46 years by Kennedy (and 58 years by a Democrat). Forget that Massachusetts is generally regarded as a very liberal state. Forget that President Obama won this state last year by more than 26 points.
Scott Brown ran as a populist Republican railing against the "establishmentarian" Coakley who had become tied at the hip to an increasingly unpopular Obama. Obama was supposed to be about "change and hope." But, many people feel that in less than a year, he has reversed himself on being transparent, failed to close Gitmo and was less than bipartisan in working with Republicans in Congress to fashion either a stimulus package or health-care reform.
According to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (New Jersey), "I have no interest in sugar coating what happened in Massachusetts. There is a lot of anxiety in the country right now. Americans are understandably impatient." And, much of that impatience, regardless of whether rightly placed or not, is directly at President Obama and the Democrats.
Yet, this race, like most races, cannot all be attributed to lack of leadership from the White House or animosity towards Pelosi or national Democrats. As one famous Massachusetts Congressman once said, "All politics is local." But, if people had remembered that Tip O'Neil quote, then maybe they could have also remembered the abysmal record Attorney Generals in Massachusetts have had over the past 35 years when seeking higher office.
Or, perhaps, Democrats would have known how those in the Commonwealth respond to unfair, negative attacks made during the finals days of a campaign. Want more? OK. Or, that Coakley had never actually been in a tough race as she had been able to bowl over token Republican opposition with little resistance, while Brown had political trench warriors from Mitt Romney's 2002 campaign.
In any case, many within the Democratic power structure quickly implied that this was fluke and any damage done by Brown was contained. Even David Letterman put on his best face with his own "Top Ten Reasons that Brown won." My favorite was that Scott Brown is the nephew of the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. Those who can recall how James Brown saved Boston after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. may have actually found this to be more of a tribute and less of a joke.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Maryland) claimed in a statement released after Coakley had conceded the contest, "House Democrats have been preparing since day one last year for what we knew historically would be a very challenging election cycle."
Uhhhh ... challenging election cycle? If by "challenging" he meant an election cycle where Democrats lost their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, could see another four or five Senators get their political pink-slips and 20 or more Representatives get unseated, then I guess that was an perfectly sound statement.
But, this did not "just happen" and it is not contained to only Massachusetts. In last year's New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial campaigns a rumbling sound of restlessness could have been heard if anyone had listened. There, Republicans won by almost two to one in the former and by more than three to one in the latter. Still, what Democrats entirely missed was the level of unhappiness. According to exit polls, 89 percent in New Jersey and 85 percent in Virginia said they were worried about the direction of the nation's economy in the next year; 56 percent and 53 percent, respectively, said they were "very" worried about it.
Except go inside the numbers further. Where Democrats were pounded was by independent voters who the year before had voted for Obama.
But there is more to Brown than all of these numbers. Consider some of his major campaign points:
• Government is too big and that the federal stimulus bill made government bigger instead of creating jobs; and
• All Americans deserve health care, but we shouldn't have to create a new government insurance program to provide it.
Wasn't it President Bill Clinton that said the era of big government was over? Maybe the Democrats need to return to what got them to the White House in the first place: helping middle class people with jobs and debt.
And there is more. Republicans learned from the Obama "social-networking" campaign strategies that brought change and hope to D.C. Republicans learned what all of that Twittering and Facebooking is really good for: raising money. Brown spent $13 million to beat Coakley. The Internet accounted for more than $12 million.
Democrats seemed to have gotten drunk at the wheel of power. Unfortunately for them, many will assume that this was a one-off and if they could just communicate their message better, then ...
No. Democrats' communication skills did not suddenly and inexplicably evaporate.
The trouble for them is that Americans, especially independent voters, became disenchanted with a process and a party that has been at the helm while unemployment has risen and back-channel deal making just to pass any health care legislation has increased.
For the mid-elections, many Democrats, though, will find that they are stuck between Barack and a hard place — and that hard place is being out of office after such a brief sojourn to power.
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John W. Sutherlin, PhD, is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Louisiana-Monroe. He also is co-director at the ULM Social Science Research Lab. He can be reached by e-mailing Sutherlin@ulm.edu.