Democrats find themselves on wrong end of the politics of discontent

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 20, 2010; A01

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."

Two months ago, White House and Democratic officials wrote off gubernatorial losses in Virginia and New Jersey, citing weak candidates and local factors. In the run-up to the Massachusetts vote, they noted that Obama's approval ratings there remained close to 60 percent, and they said there was no way to interpret the result as a rejection of the president.

Many factors may have contributed to what happened in Massachusetts, but as Tom Mann of the Brookings Institution put it, the "inchoate fear and anger and unhappiness" with the general state of the country helped put a once-safe seat at risk. "When times are bad and people are anxious, it gets directed against the party in power," he said.

"It's very clear that independents have gone south on the Democrats' and Obama's big spending agenda," Republican pollster Whit Ayres said. "Republicans are the beneficiary of that and will continue to be the beneficiary of that until November, unless something dramatic happens."

White House officials believe the populist anger stems mostly from dissatisfaction with the economy, not Obama's agenda or his health-care plan. If the unemployment rate dips, they say, Obama's approval rating will rise and so will prospects for Democrats in November.

At the same time, Republicans may run the risk of overplaying the anger card. They still face internal fights over purity and ideology. The "tea party" movement remains an unpredictable force.

Republicans, however, believe that Obama and the Democrats have stamped themselves indelibly as big-government advocates and that, even with improvement in the economy, there will continue to be resistance to the Democrats' agenda that will fuel anger on the right. Once again in Massachusetts, as in Virginia and New Jersey, the conservative base was more energized than the Democratic base.

In the past week, Obama has struck a more populist tone, rolling out a proposed fee on big banks, devoting his radio address to the initiative and sounding those themes when he campaigned for Coakley on Sunday.

But even some Democrats question whether Obama can credibly turn himself into a populist. In 2008, he campaigned above the anger, benefiting from the dissatisfaction with Bush while attempting to sound a message of bipartisanship and comity. Now he will have to try to channel the anger in ways that may run counter to his personality and demeanor.

Democratic strategists said Tuesday that they must prepare for a far more difficult campaign but that there are tools they can use. "This doesn't feel, despite the numbers, like all blame," said one top strategist. "It feels like impatience. They [voters] want to see this solved."

Democrats appeared more determined Tuesday night to deny Republicans the opportunity to be cast as outsiders in House and Senate races, particularly some Senate candidates with close ties to Washington and the Bush administration. And, they said, they must be more aggressive in calling out Republicans for blocking progress.

Democrats are faced with a fight to save their agenda and the challenge to prove they can deliver the results they promised a year ago amid the euphoria and great expectations of Obama's inauguration.

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