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Now What? Democrats Struggle to Make Sense of Losses

4 years ago
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After a year of tightly scripted, largely predictable speeches, President Barack Obama went slightly, but tellingly, off script Friday afternoon during his town hall meeting in Lorain County, Ohio.

Before getting into the meat of his speech on the economy, he said, "It's just nice being out of Washington. There are some nice people in Washington, but it can drive you crazy."

The president returned to his script to talk about his days on the campaign trail, when he could eat in diners and walk into barber shops to ask people what's on their minds. "It's harder to do that nowadays, to get out of the bubble," he added as an aside. "Nothing beats a day when I can make an escape."

Wanting to escape Washington at the end of this particular week is understandable. Between Republican Scott Brown's surprise Senate victory over Martha Coakley in Massachusetts Tuesday night, the Supreme Court's decision to lift campaign restrictions on corporations Thursday, Obama's Transportation Security Administration nominee stepping down, Federal Reserve Chief Ben Bernanke's nomination coming under fire, and even progressive radio station Air America going off the air, Obama had just come through the most bruising five days his administration, his party, and his progressive base had ever seen together.

With the loss in Massachusetts, an event Obama compared to "running into a buzz saw," Democrats lost their crucial 60-vote majority in the Senate, a reality that sent White House and congressional aides scrambling to game out how they could shove the massive health care bill though Congress before Brown was sworn in.

Thoughts that the Democrats could vote before the senator-elect from Massachusetts took his seat and avoid a filibuster were dashed by mid-week, when Majority Leader Harry Reid said he would not take a vote until Brown is sworn-in.

The suggestion that the House could simply accept the Senate health care bill now and change it later, another scenario envisioned by aides and activists, was dead by Thursday, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters at her weekly press conference that in its present form, "I don't think it is possible to pass the Senate bill in the House."

By Friday, Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut told The Washington Post it was time for Congress to "take a breather for a month, six weeks" from health care reform, throwing the future of the issue and the entire direction of the Democratic agenda in doubt.

On Capitol Hill, senators openly-- but inconclusively-- debated which lessons Democrats should learn from the week's events, and which course they should follow -- a hard, populist turn to the left, or a moderating turn to the right -- to try to avoid a massacre in the mid-term elections just 11 months away.

Liberals said the Democratic agenda is the right one, but that the Martha Coakley campaign had not capitalized on it. "Have the Democrats done anything wrong?" asked Sen. Barbara Boxer of California. "I would take it to the campaign. You never, ever, ever take a campaign for granted. I just don't think there was enough focus put on the choice. At the end of the day, all politics is local."

Sen. Bob Menendez, the leader of the Senate Democrats' 2010 efforts, said November's elections would ultimately come down more to the candidates themselves than the environment they run in. "Are they defining themselves early on, are they defining their opponent? Are they framing the race early on and are they doing everything that is necessary to win?" he said.

Moderates disagreed and said Democrats in Washington had spent too much time on health care at the expense of talking about the economy, even as unemployment rose, and have paid the price for that miscalculation at the polls. On Friday, the Department of Labor reported that unemployment was up in 43 states, including Ohio.

"The lesson from Tuesday? I think it's two words: jobs and spending," said Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.) "If the dominant message around here isn't about jobs and spending, we're making a difficult challenge exponentially more difficult."

Sen. Joe Lieberman, the independent from Connecticut, agreed, "I think the message a lot of people are taking from the election is that a lot of the voters, particularly the independents, want more fiscal restraint, they don't want their taxes raised, they're worried enough about their jobs."

Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said big spending has driven voters away from Democrats. "You've got to listen very carefully to the people we all represent and I think they are sending a message that enough is enough," he said.

Other senators said that while the health care bill was a good place for the Democrats to start, the sheer size of the proposed reforms had unnerved voters.

"My view is that when people are earning, when their home is secure, when their children are going to school and they are relatively satisfied with their lives, when there's a problem like health care, they want it solved, it doesn't threaten them," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California. "The size of this bill threatens them, and that's one of the problems that has to be straightened out."

But Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said a smaller bill would not be possible. "I heard someone today say, 'Just do pre-existing conditions.' But you can't do pre-existing conditions unless you do a mandate, and you can't do a mandate unless you do affordability," she said. "Do you think everybody around here wanted the bill to be this big? No, it's just all interrelated."

But even Republicans recognized that the anti-Democratic mood in Massachusetts Tuesday could have as much to do with voters wanting to kick out incumbents, no matter their party affiliation, as much as wanting to send a message to the Obama administration.

"I think there is certainly a lesson there to be learned for incumbents in both parties," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). "The Democrats happen to be in charge, so they were the ones punished first. But people don't want business as usual here in Washington."

Asked if he thinks Republican incumbents have anything to worry about in 2010, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is on the ballot, said with a smile, "I think everybody has everything to worry about."

Despite the Democratic party's losses, and even his allies' ambivalence about pushing forward on health care, President Obama vowed Friday to continue his fight for reform until he succeeds, promising the Ohio audience, "I'm not going to walk away just because it's hard."

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