Lessons from Massachusetts

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Political experts Matthew Dowd, Dan Schnur, Mitt Romney, Douglas E. Schoen, Ed Rogers, Norman J. Ornstein and Robert J. Blendon assess the special Senate race.

MATTHEW DOWD

Political analyst for ABC News; chief strategist for George W. Bush's 2004 presidential campaign

Campaigns are fundamentally about which candidate connects best on the values deemed most important in that election cycle. The values most desired today are authenticity and a desire for consensus and community. That's why Democrats won in 2008 -- and why Democrats, having abandoned bipartisanship, are losing elections a year later.

The volatility in the electorate is palpable. Consider: President Bush and the GOP won convincingly in 2002 and 2004, but Democrats retook Congress two years later and in 2008 expanded their margins. Barack Obama was elected on a message of hope and bringing people together. As his administration strayed from that message and actually entrenched partisanship, his approval rating is down nearly 20 points in one year.

Before they get too far celebrating Scott Brown's victory, Republicans should remember that the only folks voters dislike more than congressional Democrats are congressional Republicans. The latest CBS news poll shows Democrats in Congress have a 44 percent favorable rating, with Republicans at 34 percent. Voters have no love for Congress. And as Democrats in Washington pursue an unpopular course, voters are not flocking to the GOP: Independents are the fastest-growing group of voters.

Polls show that voters want health-care reform -- but not the version Democrats have put together. They want a bipartisan effort that lowers cost and expands access. Republicans risk voter displeasure if they seek to block any and all reform, and Democrats are suffering the wrath of trying to push through purely partisan legislation.

It was striking, last weekend, to see former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton teaming up to help the people of Haiti -- just as Democrats were discussing how they might jam health-care reform through over Republican opposition. Maybe after Haiti is stabilized, Bush and Clinton could team up to address the partisan divide here at home.

MITT ROMNEY

Governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007; candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008

Scott Brown is a strong candidate who ran a good campaign. As recently proved in New Jersey and Virginia, good candidates win. But Brown's victory was more than a rejection of the liberal Obama agenda.

Brown won in Massachusetts, the bluest of blue states, an accomplishment that could not have been possible absent extraordinary voter passion about the issues, in particular Obamacare, the economy, terrorism and federal spending.

Massachusetts health care is not perfect, but 98 percent of our residents are insured -- a feat that, unlike Obamacare, came with no new taxes, no Medicare cuts, no "public option" and no trillion-dollar price tag. It's little wonder that Massachusetts voters gave a thumbs-down to a federal health-care takeover. In electing Brown, they also repudiated the president's policies of ineffective stimulus borrowing and treating an enemy combatant to the legal defense rights normally reserved for citizens.

This victory was a repudiation of the arrogance of Washington's aspiring neo-monarchists who believe that government is wiser than the people of America.

DAN SCHNUR

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

Creigh Deeds was too mean. Jon Corzine was too rich. Martha Coakley was too aloof, too clumsy and not enough of a Red Sox fan. They were three flawed candidates, who lost three difficult races. But majority parties regularly elect flawed candidates: That's how they become majority parties.

President Obama and his advisers are too smart to continue to write off these losses to local factors. This problem has become national in scope, and the solutions must come from a fundamentally altered approach by the White House. It is increasingly clear that Obama's own election reflected less of an ideological realignment of the electorate than a strong preference for a candidate who had less in common with George W. Bush than his opponent. Having over-interpreted their mandate, Democrats must recognize that it's time to trim the sails.

Fortunately for Obama, there's a precedent to follow -- if he's willing to learn from an old nemesis whose approach to politics he has consciously and vocally rejected throughout his career. After all, Obama lost only a single Senate seat on Tuesday (albeit an iconic one). Bill Clinton lost an entire Congress. But a centrist approach to governing allowed Clinton to become a popular two-term president, an achievement that looks somewhat more difficult for Obama than it did last week. If Obama works with both parties to pass a dramatically streamlined health-care bill with a strong tort-reform component, uses the diminished Democratic majority as an excuse to indefinitely postpone climate change and immigration reform, and turns his full attention to the economy and job creation, there's still plenty of time for him to pull off a necessary course correction.

DOUGLAS E. SCHOEN

Democratic pollster and author

The defeat of Martha Coakley represents a complete repudiation of President Obama's domestic agenda, going well beyond health care. Massachusetts voters made it clear tonight with the decisive victory they gave to Republican Scott Brown that they want and expect the administration to pursue a dramatically different approach.

First and foremost, the Democrats need to prioritize jobs and develop a bold new agenda to revitalize the economy.

Next, health-care legislation is dead in its present form. This defeat, however, does not mean that the American people are opposed to all efforts to change the system. Rather, it means health-care reform must be done incrementally, with greater emphasis on cost containment and market-based reforms.

Finally, Democrats must reduce the size and scope of government and make deficit reduction a high priority. The worst thing the Obama administration can do would be to double down, become more confrontational and pursue a populist agenda. Following this path could produce a calamitous result in the midterm elections that would make the 1994 defeat look modest.

ED ROGERS

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

After the Virginia and New Jersey losses, there was a red light flashing on the White House political dashboard. Now flames are shooting out from under the hood.

It appears that the public is revolting against the liberal agenda of President Obama and the Democrats. None of the recent elections -- in Massachusetts, Virginia or New Jersey -- has had much to do with the status of the Republican Party.

Democrats are losing because they are doing things that are bad for the economy and detrimental to Americans' hopes for a more prosperous future. The longer this denial of the obvious continues, the more elections Democrats will lose. Perhaps the Obama crowd is too smart for their own good and cannot see this absolute truth.

The president's policies are unpopular, but most Americans still wish Obama well. He needs to find Bill Clinton's laser beam and focus on the economy. Obama is seen as part of the economic problem rather than part of the solution.

The president should take control of the party, fire the anemic DNC chairman, and personally make the calls and have the meetings to stop the retirements of Democrats in Congress. No-drama Obama would be well-served by a little panic.

And the best thing the Democrats could do now for Republicans would be to game or delay the seating of Sen. Scott Brown.

NORMAN J. ORNSTEIN

Resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute

What if Rep. Mike Capuano had beaten Martha Coakley in the Democratic Senate primary? Immediately, Capuano would have started aggressively defining Scott Brown and would have kept his foot on Brown's neck; Capuano also would have carried out a strong voter identification and turnout effort. Chances are he would have kept the Senate seat in Democratic hands.

But Coakley's abysmal campaign was not the only factor contributing to this embarrassing setback for Democrats. Had Capuano won, it would probably have been by a narrower margin than a "normal" result for a Democrat in the Bay State, reflecting the deep populist anger that voters feel almost across the board.

Democrats face an excruciating choice: Go forward with health reform in the face of a backlash represented by Massachusetts voters (whose attitude in part was, "We already had our health reform") -- or step back from it and face the humiliation of a defeat on a signature issue, akin to the Clinton health plan's wipeout in 1994, which contributed substantially to Democrats' devastating midterm losses.

President Obama has two larger challenges: How do you prevail in Congress with a nasty, aggressive minority party suddenly riding high? And how do you and congressional Democrats respond to flaring populist anger and new desire for change -- change from the candidate of change inaugurated just one year ago?

For Republicans, this upset victory should not obscure two facts. First, this is no embrace of the GOP. Second, the challenge of riding a populist tiger without having it turn on you, -- and of trying to present an alternative approach to governance while regularly voting no -- is going to be plenty daunting.

ROBERT J. BLENDON

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

How does the only state with universal health care vote for a senatorial candidate who strongly opposes this nationally? The answer is that the two reforms are not the same. The Massachusetts bill required no new taxes on the public except on cigarettes. It did not threaten Medicare, as polls suggest that seniors believe the congressional bills would.

The Massachusetts bill was not passed during an economic recession in which middle-income people feel financially insecure and already face rising taxes to pay for existing public services. And the Massachusetts bill was passed with bipartisan leadership, not in the climate of anger growing from today's political divide.

Many health policy experts criticized the Massachusetts law as doing too little. But with a 59 percent approval rating, it has been more sustainable politically than the proposed national legislation. A majority of Massachusetts residents simply do not support the legislation in Congress.

What does this mean for Washington? After months of highly visible debate, Democrats need to pass a health-care bill. If they pass some version of the House and Senate bills, with the taxes that were written in, they will be runing in November against Scott Brown's successful message about health care: that the taxes in these bills will seriously hurt middle-income Americans and businesses and hinder recovery from the recession.


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