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Topic A: What happens if Democrats lose in Massachusetts?

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Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Post asked political experts to explain the prospects for Democrats if Martha Coakley is defeated in Tuesday's special Senate election in Massachusetts. Below are contributions from Norman J. Ornstein, Dan Schnur, Mary Beth Cahill, Ed Rogers, Robert J. Blendon and Martin Frost.

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NORMAN J. ORNSTEIN

Resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute

A Scott Brown victory would send shock waves through Democratic Party circles, the Senate and the White House -- and not just because of the improbability of a Republican win in deep-blue Massachusetts. The real impact would be more immediate, jeopardizing passage of a health-reform plan carefully and painstakingly stitched together to win exactly 60 Democratic votes in the Senate, and not yet ready for its prime-time vote to move to final enactment.

Democrats have three options. One is to speed up delicate negotiations between House and Senate Democrats in order to bring up the bill before Brown gets sworn in. Even with their current sense of urgency, that is dicey at best. The bill will need to be scored by the Congressional Budget Office, meaning at minimum several days. Then a vote on final passage could be delayed for yet more days, using a variety of parliamentary tactics, in the Senate. Democrats control the Senate, so they can delay the swearing-in of Brown, but to do so for weeks would be uncomfortable and probably would not play well politically.

The second option would be to go back to Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, the only two Republicans who might consider supporting a bill. Snowe's refusal to vote for the Senate bill in December was in part based on substance, but in part a protest of the Democrats' decision to get to 60 votes without serious negotiations with her. Could she be brought back to the table with the requisite groveling and concessions -- without in turn losing another Democrat along the way?

The third option is reconciliation. While it is possible to lower the threshold in the Senate to 50 votes under the budget rules, it would mean a convoluted and inadequate health bill that would expire in five years. Three lousy options explain why Democrats are praying that Coakley limps across the finish line.

DAN SCHNUR

Director of the University of Southern California's Unruh Institute of Politics; communications director for John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign

There's no way that Martha Coakley can lose: Kennedy family members will personally carry Massachusetts voters to the polls to keep that from happening. More likely is that she wins by a relatively small margin of victory that will be written off as a status-quo outcome by a political community whose expectations for a huge upset were raised beyond all rational levels this past week.

But if Scott Brown actually does pull off an astonishing victory, first, the sun will swallow the moon, angels will weep and the Charles River will run red with blood. Then, the national Democratic Party will blame Coakley for running a hapless, uninspired Creigh Deeds-ish campaign. Republicans will prematurely predict a takeover of Congress in November, and thereby raise expectations to the same level they have for Brown in this race. And President Obama will be forced to learn, like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan before him, that working with members of the opposition party is a fairly smart path toward his own reelection.

The most important impact will be on health-care reform. Democrats will be tempted to delay the certification of Brown's election in order to pass the bill, but Obama should be smart enough to see that the populist backlash against such brazen maneuvering would be devastating for his party in the fall. Better at that point to declare a brand-new set of bipartisan negotiations on health care, put them on simmer, and belatedly turn his full attention to the nation's economy.


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