Massachusetts fallout

After Massachusetts loss, Democrats vow to focus on economy, jobs

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs says Republican Scott Brown's stunning Massachusetts Senate victory shook the power balance in Washington. (Jan. 20)
By Dan Balz and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 21, 2010

A day after their embarrassing loss in Massachusetts, splintered Democrats pledged to refocus their attention on jobs and the economy, and to draw sharper contrasts with Republicans, as they scramble to find a strategy to quell the populist anger that threatens the party's standing in the November elections.

Elected officials and Democratic strategists found little common ground, however, in the specifics of their response to their party's shellacking in Massachusetts, whether on how to proceed with a health-care bill that has become a political liability or on the elements of a jobs program that can dent the unemployment rate.

But they did agree that voters are prepared to punish them, not only because the economy has not improved faster, but also because they have not delivered on one of the central promises of President Obama's campaign: changing the way Washington does business.

Former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean said the proper course for Democrats now "is exactly the position the president took when he ran," which Dean said was to pledge that special interests would not run the government under his administration. "What voters think, unfortunately, is that they do run Washington," he said.

Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell said it was "just wrong" to interpret Republican state Sen. Scott Brown's victory over Democratic state Attorney General Martha Coakley in Massachusetts as a crushing defeat for the president, citing the vagaries of special elections and the difference in the quality of the two campaigns.

But he said Democrats must urgently begin to deliver on their promises in order to head off sizable losses later this year. "Let's give people a reason to turn out and vote for us," Rendell said. "Let's pass a jobs bill. Let's pass a health-care bill. Be a party. Stand up and get things done."

A focus on independents

Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), who as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee helped oversee Coakley's losing bid, said the key political ambition in the next 9 1/2 months is to "make sure we find a way to engage independent voters."

Coakley ran poorly among independents, according to pre-election polls, continuing a trend that surfaced in Virginia's and New Jersey's gubernatorial elections last November, when such voters deserted Democrats and backed Republicans.

But Menendez's House counterpart said focusing primarily on independents is a false choice that could leave the party's left flank demoralized and on the sidelines in November.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the party must find a way to pass a health-care bill, which would help soothe anger among liberals who feel slighted by the agenda so far, and should push an economic program that appeals to independents concerned about unemployment.

On Capitol Hill, Democrats are focused on the health-care conundrum -- whether they can quickly pass legislation and move on to other issues, principally the economy. "What we don't want to see is that this [health care] is to the exclusion of other things," said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (Md.), a leading liberal. "You have to be able to see the finish line. We're now at the last hurdles. You have to have a plan that can win."

Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) said that he favors trying to finish health care but that it must be wrapped up quickly to allow a turn to a new agenda. "It's got to be jobs, almost exclusive of everything else," he said.

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