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Topic A: What happens if Democrats lose in Massachusetts?

Sunday, January 17, 2010; A17

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.

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.

MARY BETH CAHILL

Manager of Sen. John Kerry's presidential campaign; former chief of staff to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy

Martha Coakley will win Tuesday because she will have a superior ground operation in a low-turnout election. But if she does not win, there will be a round of finger-pointing at the candidate and the campaign for the first several days.

Then the Democratic Party will step back and take a look at New Jersey, Virginia and Massachusetts and try to figure out what lessons to draw for the midterm election. Here is one: We will have to provide an answer to voters who think, "What about me?" We will have to make the case that the far-reaching legislative programs in energy, financial regulation and health care the party is pursuing will make the daily lives of Americans better, and that we see the changes as critical to the concerns of American families. And we will need to get all of our fractious supporters believing it and singing from the same hymnal. Right now, people can see the banks benefiting, but positive change in their lives seems to be far in the future even as the economy improves.

ED ROGERS

Chairman of BGR Group; White House staffer to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush

If Coakley were to lose, which is still unlikely, it would be one of the biggest political events since 1994. It would be a nuclear explosion in the center of the Democratic Party. And, in politics, bad gets worse. Tuesday's loss in Massachusetts would become Sunday's national realignment, and, by the next Monday, a metaphor for the Obama-induced hangover that is destroying the Democratic Party.

Republicans, meanwhile, would have a tailwind and a new face -- but no affirmative agenda. That will not stop Democrats from panicking and thinking that 2010 is every candidate for himself. President Obama will have officially lost control, if he ever had it. It is foolish to take today's headlines and extrapolate to the 2012 elections, but that caution will be ignored, and many will gleefully declare Obama "toast."

Democrats should learn from this that the voters haven't followed in their lurch to the left, and Republicans need to remember that we shouldn't continue to rely on Democratic self-destruction.

ROBERT J. BLENDON

Professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard's School of Public Health and its Kennedy School of Government

The release of a Suffolk University poll Friday showing Republican Scott Brown in a dead heat with Democrat Martha Coakley in Tuesday's special Senate election raises the possibility of a tsunami in American health politics, and politics in general. Brown, in contrast to Coakley, strongly opposes the current national health reform bill before Congress.

But the shocker is that about half of the voters in Massachusetts also oppose the health reform bill proposed by President Obama and congressional Democrats (47 percent favor, 48 percent oppose). He will have won in a state that Obama carried by 26 percentage points, and one that has the only universal health-care law in the country. For Massachusetts to elect a Republican suggests a huge and growing tidal wave of reaction to the direction the Obama administration has been taking overall, and on health care in particular. Brown's election would probably lead to the president and Congress having to start all over with a new piece of health-care legislation.

MARTIN FROST

Democratic representative from Texas from 1979 to 2005

I don't think Coakley will lose. However, if that should occur, it would have an immediate effect on the health-care legislation. At that point, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) or some other Republican would become critical if no vote has occurred before the swearing-in. Democratic leaders would need to determine exactly what would be necessary for Snowe's or any other Republican's state to make the difference.

Beyond that, the House and Senate leadership would have to take a long look at what factors contributed to the loss and reassure their own members that they will take steps to address concerns raised by the voters who abandoned the Democratic nominee. There is always the tendency to blame the candidate when something goes wrong, as Democrats did in the Virginia governor's race last year. That would be a mistake, because the press and some party faithful would see this as having real substantive meaning for the Democratic agenda. The Democratic Party would have to recognize that the public is not buying what we are selling at this point and would have to figure out how to reconnect with voters while not backing away from issues that the party considers important.

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