Making Sense of Massachusetts

So the Republican Scott Brown defeated Martha Coakley to replace Ted Kennedy in the Senate. How more ironic can you get? The seat held by the man who made health care reform his life’s work may turn out to be the seat most responsible for its current undoing.

If you’re a Democrat or at all politically progressive, it has to be pretty depressing. To me, it’s also a bit mystifying. Especially in terms of the larger picture of what it may say about voters’ current attitudes towards Obama and his political objectives. No, I don’t mean the Tea Party conservatives. I understand their point of view. But these people were against Obama from the beginning. Remember 47% of the country voted for McCain. I get that there is opposition.

What is more difficult to understand is why so many independents have changed their views so radically in just one year. Massachusetts overwhelming voted for Obama. And yet now, in a state in which Democrats outnumber Republicans 3-1, enough independents changed gears to elect a Republican to the Senate — a Republican whose major qualifications appear to be that he owns a truck, appeared as a centerfold in Cosmo and is against health care reform. The voters clearly wanted to send a message to Washington, probably more than they specifically wanted this person as Senator. But what message exactly? And why do they feel it needs to be sent? Let’s look at some specifics:

Unemployment. The economy remains in the doldrums. Unemployment remains hovering at around 10% (worse in some areas of the country, such as my former home state of Michigan). I can certainly understand that people are unhappy about this. But most indicators suggest that things are better today than they were a year ago. And there are signs that the situation will continue to improve in the year ahead. We had deep economic problems before Obama ever took office. And no one was predicting that the economy would fully recover in a year. So why have people already run out of patience? And, given the damage done during the Bush administration, why do voters even consider the idea that a return of Republicans to power is any sort of answer?

Spending. Voters complain that spending in Washington is “out of control.” Of course, Conservatives didn’t seem to mind much when Bush was racking up record-setting deficits. Yet, somehow, in less than a year, this is a reason to abandon Obama. Yes, a lot of money is being spent. But most economists agree that the stimulus package has helped improve our economy. Some have even argued that we should have spent more, not less, on the stimulus. In any case, it’s not as if Obama’s economic plans were a big secret during the election. Most of what he is done (or tried to do) in this regard is exactly what he said he would do if elected. So why act surprised when he does it?

Health Care Reform. Almost everyone agrees that the current health care system is hopelessly broken, that unless we do something major, it risks bankrupting our country in the years ahead. The Republicans have not offered any real reform. So why be so quick to refuse to even consider the Democrat’s legislation? I understand that some people are philosophically against being required to pay for insurance. But do they really prefer a system where people choose not to have (or cannot afford to have) any insurance and then have the public pay for their emergency care? Do they not understand that if you want a prohibition against denial of insurance for “pre-existing conditions” that some sort of required insurance for all is needed? In any case, it is again true that Obama made his intentions here very clear during the campaign. So why are people having “buyer’s remorse” when he actually tries to do what he campaigned on?

And I also understand the objections to all the compromises in the bill. But much of this is the result of problems getting sufficient support to pass the initial legislation. The solution to this is to give greater support to health care reform, not less.

It is especially ironic that Massachusetts would elect a new Senator who is opposed to health care reform — as Massachusetts already has a health care system that is more progressive than the one being considered nationally. Is it simply that the voters are being self-serving (“We already have it, so why support something that allocates money for others to have it as well?”)?

Progressive opposition. Actually, significant opposition to Obama these days comes from the left wing. These are the people against the Afghanistan surge, against the fact that the public option is likely gone from health-care reform, that Obama has done next to nothing in support of gay rights since taking office, that Obama has spent too much political capital attempting to get bipartisan support and not enough on getting things done by whatever means necessary. But I can’t imagine that these are the people who voted for Scott Brown. How would his election improve matters on any of these issues? The votes must have come from right-leaning independents.

The overview. It’s only been a year since Obama took office. Compared to the eight years of Bush — with Iraq, WMDs, secret wiretapping, torture, politicizing the justice department, and the unraveling of our entire economy (to name just a few highlights) — it’s hard to see how anyone could view a move back in that direction as a positive. It’s also difficult to understand, given all of the above, how people can reasonably claim to already be out of patience. Again, I’m not talking about the people who were opposed to Obama from the word go. I’m talking about those who have shifted in the last year.

So what happened? Given all this, what exactly went wrong? I believe three major forces were at work:

• At least since Ronald Reagan was elected, the U.S. has been a right-leaning country. This continues today. The 2008 election was more of an exception than a shift. It doesn’t take much to tilt this country back to the right. In contrast, getting a sustained move to the left is akin to pushing a boulder uphill. The Massachusetts election is just the latest example.

• Republicans have been and remain much much better than Democrats at appealing to voters’ emotions. And successful emotional appeals win elections. Even if it doesn’t make sense and isn’t true, Republicans have managed to equate health care reform with hot-button terms like socialism and out-of-control spending. Democrats are completely unable to balance this with their own emotional tagging. This is classic Don’t Think of an Elephant framing.

• Even ignoring the “framing” problem, Democrats are so incompetent as to be laughable. To paraphrase Jon Stewart, their bar has been set so low that it is now on the ground. In Massachusetts, Democrats ran a poor choice for a candidate, who ran a poor and lackluster campaign, and assumed she would win without even trying. In the Senate, even though they have to deal with the ridiculous filibuster rules, they still have a 59-41 advantage and yet appear completely paralyzed.

As a progressive and a Democrat, it would be nice to blame all of this on nasty scheming Republicans and irrational fickle voters. There is some of this at play, of course. But ultimately, the major culprits are the Democrats themselves. This was not an election they were doomed to lose. They did it to themselves.

They say we get the government we deserve. So, congratulations to everyone. You all deserve what you got. All we can do now is wait and see how it all works out.

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