A year after President Barack Obama took office in a wild celebration filled with hope and buoyed by the energy from a tidal wave of fervent supporters, the voters of Massachusetts turned their backs and the tables on the Democrats. In an election that has been called "epic" and "stunning," the U.S. Senate seat held by the late Edward Kennedy for 47 years went to a virtually unknown Republican. The loss of that single seat means the Democrats no longer have the 60 votes needed to prevent Republican filibusters in the Senate, and ensures that President Obama's agenda will face a much tougher road in the future. Sad to say, the Democrats brought this on themselves, having carelessly blown their historic opportunity to lead the nation to a brighter future.
Massachusetts has been called "the bluest of the blue" states, long known for sending strong liberals to Congress. The special election, held to seat Kennedy's replacement after his death, took place in the midst of a snowstorm. Nonetheless, voters turned out in huge numbers, which is generally good news for Democrats who still fancy themselves the "party of the people." But on Tuesday, those voters showed up not to cast their ballots for the state's Democrat candidate, Attorney General Martha Coakley, but for Republican Scott Brown, who ran on an anti-Obama platform highlighted by his pledge to vote against the sorry excuse for health care reform still awaiting the congressional approval that now may never come.
How it happened is no real mystery, even though Obama said he was "surprised and shocked" by the outcome. Perhaps, as much as anything, the vote was a bitter vindication for those who expected both the president and the Democrat-controlled Congress to keep their promises to truly change America and its role in the world. Instead, the Democrats bowed to the same corporate interests that have controlled both parties for most of the last century, spewed ineffective and piecemeal legislation, maintained the supremacy of the military-industrial complex, escalated the wars started by George W. Bush, and generally ignored the outraged cries of those who had brought them to office.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the case of Sen. Max Baucus. It won't take much of a memory to recall the Montana senator's haughty rejection of true health care reform when he declared that single-payer, universal health care enjoyed by every other industrialized nation in the world was "off the table" in favor of some grotesque doppelganger he referred to as "a uniquely American" plan.
Surrounded by his nodding yes-men and insulated by the bales of money lavished on him by health-interest lobbyists, Baucus ignored the weekly protests at his Montana offices by single-payer advocates, ignored the pleas by the 18,000 members of the Montana Education Association-Montana Federation of Teachers and ignored the demonstration at Big Sky against Camp Baucus, where he squeezed yet more money from his corporate cronies. Max, in his ego-driven obsession, told us he would put together a historic health care bill on his own terms, which just happened to be terms that were very friendly to big pharma, big insurance and big hospitals. Ironically, for his model he chose to mimic the Massachusetts state plan. The sorry excuse behind which he hid while blowing off real health care reform was that he had to craft a bill that would "get 60 votes" in the Senate.
Now, after nearly half a year of missing deadline after deadline to pass the health care legislation, the bumbling Democrats find themselves not just shy of the 60 votes they once controlled, but facing an energized, committed and vehemently opposed Republican block of 41 votes against which no amount of Baucus-style pandering will make the least bit of difference.
The outcome of this election proves what many progressives have been saying for some time now—that the Democrats have left their base dispirited and de-energized by failing to provide real leadership. The mass of independents that brought Obama and the Democrats to power have likewise turned away in bitter disappointment at the continuation of "business as usual" under the Democrat majorities. In the meantime, the Republicans are now more empowered than ever, having sacked a party stronghold and carried away the precious Senate seat thanks to the Democrats' naïve arrogance.
Obama, meanwhile, is scrambling to try and make sense of what happened to his once-shining presidency and his own promises of hope and change. When he gives his State of the Union address to Congress on January 29 he will no doubt eloquently detail what he believes are the many accomplishments of his first year in office. But as we say here in the West, it'll be "a day late and a dollar short" to have any impact on the race for Kennedy's seat.
The turn of events has left the Democrats stunned, like deer in the headlights as electoral doom bears down upon them. Predictably, some whine that the loss shows they moved too far, too fast, a ridiculous rationale in light of the minimal progress they have actually made. Having failed to deliver and now reeking of fear and timidity, their future efforts are likely to be even more milquetoast than their sorry performance of the last year. That, in turn, will only sow more disappointment among their base, turn more independents away in disgust and provide more fodder for their growing number of critics.
It's tough to see how the Democrats pull out of this leadership nose-dive. Their response, especially from those facing elections later this year, will most likely be to scuttle like crabs to the right, emulating the Republicans against whom they must run. Is it exactly the wrong thing to do? Yes, it is. But as the saying goes, never underestimate the ability of the Democrats to pull defeat from the jaws of victory—a feat they have just performed once again on a historic level.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at firstname.lastname@example.org.