Here are six scenarios for today’s special election for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by the death of Edward Kennedy.
FIRST: NOTHING CHANGES.
Democrat Martha Coakley wins with relative ease, thanks to the Democratic advantage in traditionally-blue Massachusetts and a lot of last-minute scrambling by frightened party activists and their union allies. As such, the Democrats maintain their 60-seat majority in the Senate and the flexibility they need to pass some sort of health care reform – which they do with little reflection on the scare they have just been through.
This is a status-quo result, which has little real impact on the Obama administration and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate. If Coakley’s win is big enough, they claim that the whole speculation about the liberal lion of the Senate’s seat falling to conservative Republican Scott Brown is dismissed as little more than an exercise in wishful thinking by a battered GOP and mental masturbation by political reporters trying to fill their timecards before the fall electoral season begins in earnest.
SECOND: SOMETHING CHANGES FOR THE BETTER.
Coakley wins, but by a very narrow margin in a state that sends an entirely Democratic delegation to the Congress and that voted for George McGovern for Pete’s sake.
Democrats recognize that they got lucky when they realized late in the game that their nominee was in trouble and compliment themselves for responding quickly enough to save the seat. But they open an internal (and to some extent external) discussion about their circumstance going into a critical election year. They recognize, finally, that they have mismanaged the health-care debate – confusing Americans, offering less than anyone bargained for and spending too much time trying to satisfy the demands of big insurance firms and the pharmaceutical industry. They also recognize that they have spent too little time focused on jobs and holding Wall Street and the big banks to account.
The realization that Obama’s final push worked not because of fears that his health care reform would be defeated but because he adopted a populist politics that battered the bankers is not lost on the president or his strategists. They get more actively engaged in muscling up and making real the promise of health-care reform – which must be passed in order to record a major accomplishment. But their primary focus becomes the too-long neglected economic mess that threatens to undermine the party’s prospects this fall.
THIRD: SOMETHING CHANGES FOR THE WORSE (Coakley Mix)
Coakely wins by a narrow margin and conservative Democrats – along with their echo chamber in major media (not Fox, but the broader punditocracy that is so inclined to police politics toward the center) – spin the fantasy that their Massachusetts nominee got into trouble because Obama and Congressional Democrats have been too bold, too ambitious, too liberal.
The health-care bill is compromised even further. Obama focuses on deficit reduction and spending freezes rather than job creation. Despite some wrangling in the House, the Democrats begin triangulating to the right. Caution is the order of the day and the Republicans seize the opening – especially if unemployment grows worse – to paint Obama and his congressional allies as a managerial party that is not up to the task of governing.
In this scenario, they wake-up call is received but misinterpreted. And that misinterpretation will haunt the Democrats as they move toward November elections in states that will not be so friendly or forgiving as Massachusetts.
FOURTH: SOMETHING CHANGES FOR THE WORSE (Brown Mix)
Republican Brown wins by a narrow margin. Democrats misread the result as evidence that the president’s attempt at populism did not resonate – as opposed to recognizing that it came too late. They steer to the right, with even more vigor than if Coakley had prevailed. In this scenario, Democrats seriously dumb-down or even abandon health-care reform while doing little of what is necessary to revive the economy.
The Democrats position themselves as a party that, even in power, can do little more than talk. And the Republicans seize the initiative in policy debates and in the rush to a fall election season that will pretty much begin on Wednesday.
In this scenario, watch for lots more Democratic retirements in the House (and perhaps a few more in the Senate) and perhaps even for some D-to-R party switches.
FIFTH: EVERYTHING CHANGES FOR THE WORSE
Brown wins with ease. Democrats panic. They try to pass health-care reform before the Republican is certified or, worse yet, they try to game the rules of the Senate in order to get around the 60-seat hurdle that they foolishly accepted when they thought they had the votes.
They are called out by Republicans – Senator Judd Gregg, R-New Hampshire, has already been talking about "Chicago politics at its worst" — and shamed as key Democrats abandon the strategy. As one senior Democratic aide explained it: "Trying to delay the seating of duly elected senator to jam through a bill that is tremendously unpopular would be met with outrage. The perception of this would be catastrophic."
Procedural scheming to rework the rules at the last minute would be very nearly as catastrophic.
SIXTH: DEMOCRATS GET THE WAKE-UP CALL AND CHANGE FOR THE BETTER
Brown wins and Obama and the Democrats recognize that they misplayed the hand they were dealt by voters in 2008. They do not abandon health-care reform, but they recognize that they must do it better – and they set a rapid but reasonable timeline to accomplish the goal.
They may ultimately go for rule changes to address the undemocratic 60-vote requirement, but they play no games with Brown’s certification and do not try to rush a vote.
Obama and his team reposition to focus far more energy on job creation and economic accountability. They accept that it is economically and politically necessary to be far more aggressive with the banks and they get the president talking to the nation about tipping the balance from Wall Street to Main Street. More importantly, they walk the walk – putting resources into a genuine jobs plan and placing real regulations (and taxes) on banks that so far have escape any sort of accountability moment.
This final scenario is the toughest one, in that it requires the Democrats to respond seriously and strategically – rather than in a scared and desperate manner. But, if Massachusetts sends a Republican to Washington, this approach holds out the greatest hope for the Democrats to be a governing force in 2010 and maintaining their majorities.