Democrats find themselves on wrong end of the politics of discontent

Massachusetts voters elected Republican State Senator Scott Brown to fill the seat of longtime statesman Edward M. Kennedy, who died in August 2009.
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 20, 2010

President Obama and the Democrats rode a wave of anger aimed at the presidency of George W. Bush to victories in 2006 and 2008. Now, a year to the day after Obama was sworn into office, in a dramatic reversal of fortunes, populist anger has turned sharply against the president and his party.

The politics of discontent rolled across Massachusetts in stunning fashion Tuesday, delivering the seat held for more than four decades by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy to Republican state Sen. Scott Brown in an upset of historic proportions.

Gloomy Democrats were left to wonder whether they and Obama have an answer to that anger that can head off potentially devastating losses in the November midterm elections, and they faced more potential fractures within their ranks.

The widespread dissatisfaction has led to a massive erosion in the support Democrats once enjoyed among independents, who were critical to the party's success in 2006 and 2008. Without exit polls, it was difficult to say with any precision Tuesday night how independents voted in Massachusetts. But there was no way Brown could have won the state, where Democrats have a huge edge over Republicans in registration, without a significant margin among independents.

Tuesday's loss triggered unsightly Democratic recriminations, a clear indication of the confusion, disappointment and disillusionment that have set in over the past few months as the party has lost gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia and now an almost sacred Senate seat in one of the most Democratic states in the nation.

Democratic strategists privately heaped criticism on Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley as a lackluster candidate and on her campaign as asleep at the switch until it was too late. Her team fired back that voters believed Democrats in Washington have done more for big banks and auto companies than for working families and that a national wave threatens serious damage to the party.

But the real debate for the Democrats will be how to proceed. The most immediate problem is what to do with the health-care bill. Democrats from the House and the Senate have been negotiating furiously, trying to harmonize competing bills. Now the issue is whether they can quickly agree on how to pass a bill and whether they face a public backlash by doing so.

Some Democrats warned Tuesday that they must scale back their agenda in the wake of the Massachusetts results. "It's why moderates and independents even in a state as Democratic as Massachusetts just aren't buying our message," Sen. Evan Bayh (Ind.) told ABC News. "They just don't believe the answers we are currently proposing are solving their problems. That's something that has to be corrected."

"That is a real drama between now and when Obama gives the State of the Union," said a Democratic strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk about his party's problems. "After the challenges of health care and Massachusetts, does he continue to push forward with this very bold agenda of trying to address big and very intractable problems? Or does he come to a different conclusion about the rest of 2010?"

Beyond that is the posture Democrats will assume for the coming elections. White House officials have signaled a sharper, more populist message in an effort to convince voters that they stand with the people and that Republicans stand with banks and Wall Street and health insurance companies.

Celinda Lake, Coakley's pollster, said her candidate had a 21-point advantage over Brown on who would be more effective at taking on Wall Street. But she said it did not translate into support for Coakley because voters did not believe that Democrats in Washington will follow through and take on those vested interests. "What that criticism [of Coakley] ignores is that there's a wave here. I don't know how many times the tsunami has to roll over us," she said.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the mood of discontent has been obvious for months. "I think there's a tremendous amount of upset and anger in this country about where we are economically," he said. "That's not a surprise to us in this administration because . . . in many ways we're here because of that upset and anger."

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