Six Lessons of the Brown Upset

Yesterday, Massachusetts voters, Democratic by a 3 to 1 margin, elected Republican Scott Brown to fill the seat formerly occuped by Democratic lion, Ted Kennedy.  It is truly a shot from the Bay State heard round the world.  However, it need not spell disaster for the Obama Administration providing the Administration interprets it correctly.  Here are six lessons from the vote that the Administration absolutely needs to internalize.

It was not about Martha Coakley.  Contrary to some spin that is emerging Martha Coakley was a strong candidate and the real deal for Massachusetts Democrats.  Her mother was one of twelve in a working class Irish family.  One of five, herself, she worked her way up to Attorney General and handily beat Rep. Michael Capuano in a hotly election that hyperpolitical Massachusetts pols had been anticipating for years.  She was coasting to a landslide right up to the Senate Vote on healthcare.

It was and is about the Healthcare bill.  Brown managed to make the race a referendum on the health care bill and Democratic governance and Coakely gave the impression she would go along with the leadership. The American people--as this vote should make clear--don't like the health care bill.  They don't like the process and they don't like its content.   Had Democrats crafted a bill able to get at least a few Republican votes, one that cured the obvious problems of portability and exclusion of pre-existing conditions, had no individual mandate and did not tax health care while claiming to lower its cost, neither Coakley nor the President would have seen their poll numbers collapse. 

It was about the voters.  Scott Brown won not because of anything elected officials--or Fox Commentators did or said but because of how voters feel.   The voters, genuinely angry, are the obstacle to health care and the Administration's course, not the machinations of any politicians, other intermediaries or people in the media.  It is the people who are unhappy about this health care bill and what it signifies.  Democrats need to face this fundamental truth.

It was about Democratics and Independents, not Republicans.  In a state with 3 to 1 Democratic registration, Scott's win, moreover, had nothing to do with Republicans who were practically bystanders.  The revolt was by Democrats and, to a degree, Independents in this bluest of blue states.  Democratic voters did publicly what Democratic legislators have only been willing to do privately, voice their disatisfaction with a bill they don't like.   The problem for the Administration and Congress is not with Republicans, but with their own voters.

If you go partisan, you better get it right.  The partisan strategy has a fatal flaw--you are on the hook for every letter and word of a law and can't blame it on compromise with the other party.  If the Democrats had managed to get at least one Republican vote, voters might not have blamed them exclusively for provisions of the bill they don't like.  Instead, acting alone, they have come up with two bills that fail to satisfy.  The partisan strategy exposes a party that employs it to total responsibility for what they produce. 

Finally, it's about the economy.  As Simon argues below, the single greatest problem facing America today has to do with jobs and wages and people want their leaders to solve it.  To justify so much effort on health care as opposed to the economy in a time of double digit unemployment, the Administration has tried to argue that high health care costs are hurting the economy and hurting family budgets.  In fact, health care costs have little to do with the cyclical state of the economy that (as one learns in Economics 101) determines employment and economic well being.  The public quite simply isn't buying.  The second argument that health care costs eat into budgets is true.  However, few Americans believe either the House or Senate bill will address this.  Further, Americans want to choose their level of health care, more, less or none (unless it is free)--the reason they oppose elements of this plan like the health care tax and individual mandate.  Most Americans view the health care debate as a distraction from what they want right now: jobs and a return to prosperity.

Will the Democrats absorb these lessons?  That is the crucial question.  The time to change course is now, not in November.  The Democrats should pass a stripped down health care bill as quickly as possible, if they can, that does what the people want--provides portability and ends exlusions, shorn of complex and controversial provisions that people don't like.  The Administration should then focus on that elements of the economy people want fixed--more jobs with rising wages  The latter isn't easy.  But it is critical.  On the two legislative items next on the agenda, financial reform and energy, Democrats ned to reach across the aisle to find Republican votes. 

True, Republicans will probably resist these changes so as to keep the anti-Democrat momentum alive.  That only proves how important changing course now really is.  The alternative, staying the course that led to last night's election shock will only lead to more elections like that in Massachusetts this fall.