It is hard to exaggerate the profound historical defeat suffered by Democrats in Massachusetts on Tuesday. A smooth guy in a GM pickup who posed nude for Cosmopolitan magazine won a U.S. Senate seat in the most highly educated, relatively prosperous, “don’t blame me, I voted for McGovern” state in the union.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be hyperbole. Fox News’s Glenn Beck said he doesn’t trust Senator-elect Scott Brown and warned that Brown’s term in Washington “could end with a dead intern.” What does this clown -- Beck takes a comedy act on the road -- drink before his show?
Brown himself says his win wasn’t a referendum on Barack Obama: “It’s bigger than that.”
Hard to be bigger than a thunderbolt. So what did we learn, if anything, on Tuesday?
Message One: If you look the slightest bit in, you are out.
In 2008, voters didn’t choose Obama; they chose the outsider promising to be the new sheriff in town. Democrat Martha Coakley, as Massachusetts’ sitting attorney general, was the sheriff in town, but not a new one. In the narrative of us vs. them, the banks vs. the bank depositors, the insurance companies vs. the insurance buyers, Coakley became the “them.”
Message Two: Don’t get Coakleyed.
Democrats just crawling out from under their beds are swearing off complacency, wholesale campaigning and pinstripes in favor of pressing the flesh, traveling by truck and giving the impression you just fell off one.
Also, don’t take a Caribbean vacation in the midst of a campaign -- maybe no vacation, anywhere. It’s true no one wanted Coakley drowning out “Jingle Bells” over Christmas. That doesn’t mean you should flee someplace warm when your constituents are freezing over the holidays, worried about jobs.
Other things on the not-to-do-list: Don’t complain about shaking hands outside Fenway Park in the early-morning chill. Don’t insult your homeboys by not knowing the local hero. Don’t pour salt on the insult by insisting the hero, former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, is a Yankee fan.
Message Three: Resist impulse to over-attribute loss to an unusually bad candidate. (That is, take Message Two with a grain of salt.)
So Coakley’s a doofus, OK. One of the few worthwhile insights gained from dwelling inside the Beltway is that we’ve met our share of doofuses who call the Senate home. You can count on one hand the number of people not related by blood or marriage to the non-geniuses in charge of the Senate, Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid, who feel warmly toward them.
Message Four: Don’t believe that the rejection of a Democrat translates into sudden love for Republicans who crippled the economy, redistributed wealth from the middle class to big business and the rich, and waged a trillion-dollar war in the wrong country. There’s no mandate to back off fixing our problems.
Message Five: It’s not only about health care. It’s about the shady banks, and joblessness, too. But it’s partly about health care.
Massachusetts is the canary in the mine. If universal, government-subsidized health care isn’t working there, why would residents of that state support the similar yet inferior national plan that would be implemented under the Senate bill?
Put another way: If Massachusetts, with one of the smaller state deficits, can’t afford Romney-care, imagine how the country -- with a proportionally much bigger deficit, more uninsured and an economy in worse shape -- is going to do with a similarly flawed plan.
Message Six: What happened in Massachusetts is a free glimpse into the future for Obama.
President Bill Clinton had to lose the whole Congress in 1994 to waken from his stupor and take on the deficit, balancing the budget and welfare reform.
At this very moment, Democrats in tough races, and even those in easier ones, are dreaming of ways not to have to vote for the health-care bill. Obama looked at the picture from the Bay State and told ABC in an interview that Congress shouldn’t try to “jam” health-care legislation through before Brown is seated.
To get support from Democrats, much less Republicans, Obama is going to have to break health care into smaller pieces the public can understand and that Republicans can’t so easily demonize. How can Republicans go home and explain they voted in favor of Aetna and against their constituents, or in favor of cherry-picking healthy policy-holders while dropping sick people?
Young and Old
Government shouldn’t be the ogre forcing people to buy insurance under draconian penalties. People want insurance when they can afford it. Young people can be lured in with cheap catastrophic policies. Seniors’ drug costs should be covered above the current $2,250 cutoff. And who could be against computerizing medical records so people don’t get the wrong blood type or drug that will kill them?
Obama should be cutting deals with Republicans instead of bribing Democrats with smelly deals that benefit a few. Give the GOP malpractice reform (not a bad idea anyway) in exchange for a public-option trigger and reform of the-fee-for-service payment structure that’s crippling us financially without healing us medically.
Oh, and broadcast it all on C-Span.
(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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