The Kennedy Curse has struck again: a mere forty years into his Senate term, Massachusetts Democrat Ted Kennedy was felled by cancer in August, leaving his seat open to a special election that took place yesterday. In a turn of events that shocked any political strategist who stopped looking at opinion polls two weeks ago, Republican Scott Brown won a decisive victory over Democrat Martha Coakley. Now Washington is scrambling. The vote in Massachusetts has widely been interpreted as a referendum on the Democratic Party, health care reform, President Obama, and the existence of American liberalism in general. It’s a little early to say, but most analysts agree that the whole thing is basically over. “It is a mighty blow for a president,” says CNN political editor Mark Preston, “who just one year ago seemed unbreakable, unstoppable, unbeatable.” By one year ago, Mark Preston, do you mean the day he took office? Yeah, I guess he did look pretty good then. Those days are done, though. That day, I guess.
With only 75% of his term left, the history of the Obama presidency has already been written, and it was a failure. Yesterday’s interim election—between a man who made his pickup truck the centerpiece of his campaign and once appeared nude in Cosmopolitan, and a woman who publicly expressed her distaste for shaking hands with constituents and claimed that Curt Schilling was a Yankees fan—proves that. Analysts agree that it was also a referendum on the current Congress. Never mind that neither candidate was an incumbent. According to Preston, “Democrats appeared to recognize the anti-Washington sentiment the recent votes represent.” Virginia Democratic Senator Jim Webb regards the election as “a referendum not only on health care reform but also on the openness and integrity of our government process.”
Ah, health care reform. Just as Martha Coakley equals Democratic Congress, Democratic Congress equals health care reform. Massachusetts is the only state in the union with health care laws more progressive than the reforms Obama has proposed, and the residents of that state would profit nothing from the passage of a bill, but they have spoken on behalf of the American people. “No,” they have said, and the Democrats have listened. Now that Brown has been elected and the Dems have only a 19-seat majority in the Senate, any hope of passing meaningful reform has been dashed. Jim Webb knows it, which is why he said it would be “prudent” for his party to suspend any attempt to move forward on the legislation until Brown is seated. To do otherwise would be unethical and a betrayal of the democratic process; the important thing is to let Brown take his seat so that Senate Republicans can filibuster health care reform, as the American people intended.
Democrats in the House agree. Already dissatisfied with the Senate version of the bill, they’ve announced their intention to continue debate over legislation, starting from scratch if need be, rather than voting now and sending the package to President Obama for signature. The bill isn’t perfect, after all, and passing it now would give the opponents of sitting Congressmen something to criticize in November. No, better to pass no legislation whatsoever and end the term with a perfect record, rather than pursue the reform that has been the primary focus of both houses of Congress for the past six months. The 97%-insured Red Sox fans of America have sent a message, and it is that A) they like handsome men in pickup trucks better than dour women and B) health care isn’t even a problem, brah.
Brown’s election has exposed the essential cowardice of the Democratic Party, and it is disgusting. Less than twelve hours after the polls closed, the collective national party apparatus has agreed to abandon legislation that would improve the lives of millions of Americans. The last six months of wrangling over abortion, over protecting Medicare, over any element of the health care bill that might conceivably displease five percent of the electorate has been a screen for Democrats’ essential discomfort with assuming any sort of decisive leadership. President Obama may consider health care reform his mandate, but congressional Democrats have been looking for any excuse to do nothing. They’ve found it in the election of Scott Brown, and now they have relieved themselves of the responsibility to make difficult decisions for the health of the American people. They have relieved themselves right in their pants.
The Republicans don’t need to filibuster health care reform, because Jim Webb and the rest of the Democrats in Congress are falling over one another to abandon ship. Never has a 19-seat majority been declared such a decisive loss. It was individual avarice that prevented the Democrats from passing meaningful reform during the year—the entire goddamn year—that they enjoyed a bulletproof majority in Congress. Now that their advantage has been weakened by 5%, collective fear will do the rest. The real shock of the last 24 hours was not how suddenly Scott Brown leapt ahead at the polls, but how quickly the Democratic Party rolled onto its back and waited for the long knives.
Say what you will about the GOP. They are greedy, mendacious, ideological and cruel, but they make the Democratic Party look like a student council. During the year that they controlled a sliver of seats in the House and Senate, they managed to bring the entire Congress to a halt with the threat that they might win an election in the future. Now that they’ve captured one Senate seat, the Democrats have abandoned the most important piece of social legislation of the last fifty years. The popular wisdom holds that if Congress does not pass health care reform, Barack Obama cannot win re-election in 2012. To look at the Democrats’ response to last night’s election, you’d think that had already happened. Now that every state and local election is a referendum on whether the Democrats should stop governing and cross themselves, trying to pass a law or elect a President seems like a formality anyway. With a national party this fearful and inept, why bother?