When Harris Wofford scored an upset win in a 1991 special election—the first Democrat to win a U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania in almost 30 years—the political earth moved, presaging the party's triumph in the national elections the following year and putting health-care reform on the agenda. It was a major tremor, a 6 on the political Richter scale. The stunning victory of Scott Brown in this week's special election for Ted Kennedy's seat, the first Republican to win a Senate seat in Massachusetts in 37 years, was an earthquake, an 8 on that same scale.
Only a year after the euphoria of Barack Obama's inaugural, the President and his party have been sapped of vitality. With reactions ranging from despondency to panic, efforts to paint the Massachusetts results as sui generis are a nonstarter.
"Special elections have special ramifications," says Democratic pollster Peter Hart. "The House voted to impeach Nixon [in 1974] after special elections sent a message. Pennsylvania sent a message [in 1991] that things are going to change." The Massachusetts message to Democrats, he says, is simple: "You're not getting the job done." Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman and a prominent political strategist, agrees. "This is not about Republicans," he says. "It's about an overreaching Democratic agenda which has people frightened. They believe the expansion of borrowing, spending, and taxing is the principal threat to recovery."
The implications are far-reaching. Prospects that Obama will succeed on his signature issue, a health-care overhaul, have gone from 80% a week ago to less than 50-50 today; all of the Democrats' options to revive the measure over the next few weeks are full of lethal land mines. Their only chance may be, as Obama conceded after the Massachusetts shock, a vastly scaled-back bill, including insurance reforms but no guarantee of coverage for 30 million Americans, and expanded Medicaid for poorer people with higher taxes. If the President got this, by no means a given, it would be a huge retreat from his promises.
The President's clout on other big issues, from financial regulation and the bank tax to deficit reduction, has eroded. He tried to save the Democratic candidate on the eve of the Massachusetts election and proved only that he wears what's called an Eisenhower jacket: no coattails.
It also was a devastating setback for White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. His influence and effectiveness only a short while ago were compared to James Baker, who held that job under Ronald Reagan. If the health-care measure fails, those comparisons will stop. On Capitol Hill, nervous Democrats are in a self-preservation mode, party be damned. Many believe what they do this year in Washington won't help much in November. "The traction for Democrats is not going to come from legislation," says pollster Hart.
Republicans believe the special election augurs well for them in November. "We have candidates who were on the fence now talking about taking the risks," says California Congressman Kevin McCarthy, the GOP's head political strategist in the House. "They figure if we can win in Massachusetts, we can win anywhere." Moreover, he thinks about a half-dozen more Democrats are now likely to retire, bringing the total to 17 and giving Republicans a real shot at winning the 40 seats necessary for control of the House.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid's shaky reelection prospects look even worse. The failure of the Nevada Democrat and others, including the White House, to pressure party liberals for more expeditious action on health care last fall will prove a catastrophic miscalculation if the bill dies.
Obama has the venue for a fresh start and strategy with his State of the Union address. What will it be? "They haven't the foggiest idea; they're shell-shocked," says one leading Dem who regularly talks to Obama's chief advisers.
The most predictable and ominous indicator is the finger-pointing that started even before Bay State voters went to the polls. Anonymous top White House aides were blaming the likely debacle on a flawed candidate, her pollster, and the Senate Democratic campaign committee.
Democrats outside the White House, also insisting on anonymity, noted Tuesday's election was for the seat held for 47 years by Ted Kennedy, the pol most identified with health-care reform. The centerpiece of candidate Brown's insurgency was a vow to provide the decisive vote in the Senate against the Obama health-care plan. That resonated in Kennedy's Massachusetts, a testament, they say, to the White House's inability to articulate a message.