For Democrats and Republicans alike, lessons from the Massachusetts Senate election

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

IT WILL BE tempting for the White House to blame the stunning Democratic defeat in Massachusetts Tuesday on local factors. Attorney General Martha Coakley was complacent, Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick is unpopular, Republican candidate Scott Brown looked great in the buff -- anything to avoid the course corrections that may be called for.

By the same token, national Republicans are likely to take the results of the special Senate election in Massachusetts as vindication of their strategy of obstruction and exaggeration. On the surface, it seems to be working pretty well for them. But they, too, may be sorry if they don't look a bit deeper into Mr. Brown's upset victory, as well as at their gubernatorial wins last fall in New Jersey and Virginia.

The hard truth for Democrats is that the Massachusetts election resonates with national polling results. Voters, not just in Massachusetts and certainly not just in the Republican Party, are worried about government spending. Budget deficits and the national debt alarm many Americans, and rightly so. Voters also are disappointed that President Obama's promises of pragmatic, bipartisan cooperation have not been fulfilled. On that score, too, we sympathize.

The White House answer will be: We tried, and Republicans didn't want to play ball. That's true, and the growing strength of the party's Tea Party wing is making cooperation ever more difficult.

But imagine that Mr. Obama had refused to take the Republicans' no as his final answer. The president acknowledged, for example, that malpractice litigation is a factor in driving up health-care costs. He signaled he might be open to its reform if Republican senators would support his overall framework. When none did, malpractice reform fell by the wayside, which was the predictable response; why offend a Democratic interest group (trial lawyers) for no apparent political gain? But Mr. Obama could have insisted: This is a good idea, not just a Republican idea, and it belongs in health-care reform. A series of such steps, difficult as they would be, might have a real effect on public opinion and the political climate.

The president's liberal base will conclude that he needs to be more combative and ideological. Bash Wall Street, take it to the Republicans, really go after the evil health insurance companies. That would appeal to many.

But we think Tuesday's election offers a different lesson. Of course voters are inclined to blame the incumbent party for the troubled economy, and there's not much Mr. Obama can do about that in the short term. But voters also are nervous about one-party rule, especially when it tends toward arrogance or taking them, the voters, for granted. When state Democrats rewrite and then re-rewrite their special election law in the space of five years to suit their party interests, people notice. When the federal tax code is stretched in the health-care bill to give advantages to union workers that non-union workers won't share, people notice that, too.

We don't believe that Tuesday's defeat means Mr. Obama should back away from his goal of expanding access to health care while controlling health-care costs. But if losing his filibuster-proof majority in the Senate prompts him to stretch a bit further beyond party positions in search of practical solutions, both he and the nation might benefit.

We recognize and regret that Tuesday's election isn't likely to have any such tempering effect on Republicans. With their scare talk of a "government takeover" of health care, and their demagogic about-face on Medicare savings, they no doubt feel they've done well for themselves. But ultimately we don't believe voters will reward a party that just says no, either; Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell won with a very different promise, of a pragmatic and cooperative conservatism. A little of that would go a long way in Washington.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company