If you're a veteran reader you've heard this before, but special elections always get blown far out of proportion. Elections are ratings events for the political media and it takes very little prodding to get them to cover whatever is at hand like it's some combination of the Super Bowl and presidential election. That said, what happened in Massachusetts yesterday was bad, bad news for the Democratic Party. If they had enough sense to learn anything from what happened, it probably wouldn't have happened in the first place.
The Democrats lost Ted Kennedy's Senate seat. The good news? There is no good news, unless you're a Republican.
The Democrats in Massachusetts nominated a horrendous candidate who proceeded to run a somnolent campaign (or non-campaign) that presumed victory and excited exactly no one. The Republicans were highly motivated even though Scott Brown is far from great shakes himself. So we're back to the pre-2008 electoral dynamics: Republicans vote, Democrats don't. And why would they? What kind of rallying cry could Coakley have used? "Get out to vote! Protect that watered-down embarrassment of a health care 'reform' bill! You know, the one we let the insurance companies write!" Something tells me that would not have worked. It is plainly obvious that Democratic candidates can't expect success without the voters who showed up in 2008, and they're not going to show up unless they're highly motivated by distaste for the GOP (which they aren't at the moment, given the results from 2006-08) or enthusiasm for the Congressional agenda. What we're seeing is not a schizophrenic electorate giving the GOP eight years to screw things up and expecting the Democrats to fix it all in nine months. We're seeing that nine months is more than enough time for the modern Democratic Party to disgust most of its base.
Is it accurate to say that this is a referendum on Obama? No, although you will hear plenty of that anyway. Is it a referendum on the Congressional leadership? Absolutely. I've never seen a group of elected officials so talented at getting voters to simply not give a fuck who wins or loses. Can you listen to Harry Reid for five minutes without completely losing interest in anything political? It is problematic to make the following claim – that the Democrats inevitably lose their grip on power because they fail to be liberal enough – because we often mock the GOP for making the same excuse in the wake of defeat. In the case of the GOP, however, the argument is patently silly. Their leadership is very conservative and not at all shy about ramming their agenda through Congress. When the Democrats are in power, only Glenn Beck and hysterical teabaggers would describe their agenda as "liberal." America gets a heaping serving of Republican Lite, tons of pointless commitments to pursue "bipartisanship" and therefore get nothing accomplished, and the powerful leadership skills of Steny Hoyer and Harry Reid. Enthralling.
Midterm elections are rarely good for incumbent presidents and 2010 will be no different. That said, the GOP is likely to get carried away with hyperbolic predictions of picking up 15 Senate and 100 House seats in November. The slow trickle of faint but positive economic signs will cushion the downside for the majority party, especially if the employment numbers pick up (which is no sure thing). In the end, however, Obama will get exactly what he deserves. He took office with all the enthusiasm in the world behind him and he proceeded to govern like an Eisenhower Republican. Like Clinton, Obama will probably survive re-election in 2012 because of his personal appeal and the pitiful field of challengers. But his brief window of opportunity to seize the initiative and take control of the Congressional agenda has passed. The partisan balance in the general public favors the Democrats, but the same can't be said among people who can be counted upon to vote regularly. The Democrats have only themselves to blame for the disparity between the two.