It Wasn't About Coakley

Editors' Note: This piece has been corrected.

It's laughable to see the same party that just six years ago saw its presidential candidate and congressional slate trounced deciding that the "Obama era" is over after losing one Senate seat, even as a Democratic president and congressional majorities remain in office. George W. Bush never had it so good.

That's not to minimize what is an embarrassing setback. Losing a long-Democratic seat in a special election when a (barely) filibuster-proof majority hung in the balance illustrates a sense of complacency among national Democratic operatives that must be avoided if they wish to protect their majorities come November. Martha Coakley's lazy and gaffe-ridden campaign was inexcusable. Nonetheless, if progressives are serious about governing, this is not a time for complaint but for rededication.

More important than the postmortem hand-wringing is taking a lesson from the loss: Democrats aren't framing the political debate with any success, and their equivocations leave them open to right-wing attacks and progressive suspicion.

Take health-care reform: Scott Brown, the newest senator from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, supported MassCare reforms as a state legislator but opposes a very similar project on a national scale. This should have been an opportunity for Coakley to educate Massachusetts voters on the strengths of the bill in Congress and why it will work across the country; instead, Coakley said she was disappointed in the Senate bill even as she promised to vote for it.

Consider the financial crisis: I wrote favorably of Coakley before she even threw her hat in the ring because as Massachusetts attorney general, she led the charge in holding the big banks accountable, winning multimillion-dollar settlements from institutions like Goldman Sachs for being party to mortgage fraud. Her opponent, meanwhile, opposed President Obama's moderate bank tax. Where was Coakley, demonstrating her record on going after the banks and her willingness to fix the rules that govern them?

Even now, some Democrats are ready to concede their agenda to a bare majority of voters in Massachusetts -- though that didn't seem in order when Ted Kennedy and John Kerry won their last elections -- because this loss is supposedly a sign that their proposals are too far to the left.

"It's why moderates and independents even in a state as Democratic as Massachusetts just aren't buying our message," Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana said. "They just don't believe the answers we are currently proposing are solving their problems. That's something that has to be corrected."

Bayh's analysis is absurd. The health-care reform bill that Congress has created, and that Bayh voted for, is a deeply moderate legislation based in large part on past Republican ideas, even if Republicans, motivated by hope of partisan gain, won't admit it. Obama has passed more spending cuts than Bush did. Last spring's fiscal stimulus plan -- that Bayh again voted for -- was supported by economists on the right and the left, and even the conservative American Enterprise Institute says it helped the economy.

Perhaps Bayh should start defending his party's mainstream positions on policy grounds instead of offering vaguely to "correct" them. It's this sort of distancing from their own positions that hurts the Democrats.

Meanwhile, the chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee -- soon to be the scapegoat of this sad affair -- at least seems to understand what needs to be done.

"We must be aggressive in defining our opponents and framing the choice voters face," Sen. Bob Menendez told reporters. An unnamed White House aide echoed him in Politico, saying, "The best political route also happens to be the boldest rhetorical route, which is to go out and fight and let the chips fall where they may. We can say, 'At least we fought for these things, and the Republicans said no.'"

Results are critical. Under George W. Bush, Republicans held smaller majorities than Democrats under Obama, even after yesterday's results. Bush was able to accomplish his basic priorities thanks to national unity after 9/11 and cohesive majorities but also in large part because he and his party were not afraid to fight for what they wanted.

Republicans passed their tax cuts with a simple majority through the budget reconciliation process; if Obama and his party fail to pass health care through that path or another, then they'll demonstrate that they don't think the reforms they campaigned on are worth fighting for -- and show voters that Democrats aren't worth electing.

If progressives or Blue Dogs in the House refuse to swallow their objections and pass the Senate health-care bill when the chips are down, they'll deserve the shellacking they take next fall. Senators like Max Baucus should take a good, hard look at where the summer's fruitless negotiations with Republican members got them and what conclusions should be drawn.

Of course, Democrats could listen to the likes of Bayh and spend the next year trying to "moderate" their congressional agenda by combining it with the anti-tax, anti-government nihilism endorsed by today's GOP, supporting policies that do nothing in response to the great challenges of our times. All this will do is signal to voters that Democrats can't be trusted with power.

If Democrats remain assertive and fight for their policies, Brown will be a one term senator. If they don't, well, remember how much fun 1994 was?

Correction: Scott Brown was elected to serve out the remainder of Kennedy's term which ends in 2013; he does not face reelection in 11 months.

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