You cannot lead solely by following election returns. But some members
of the Democratic Party are now testing the proposition that you can
A year ago, they luxuriated in victory. On Jan. 23, 2009, newly minted
President Barack Obama, in a meeting with congressional leaders at the
White House, indicated that bipartisanship (campaign rhetoric
notwithstanding) was not on the agenda. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., raised
objections to the idea of "tax credits" for people who did not pay
taxes. The president was dismissive. "On some of these issues, we're
just going to have ideological differences," he said. "I won. So I think
on that one, I trump you."
The morning after the off-year elections that saw Republicans take the
state houses in New Jersey and Virginia, Speaker of the House Nancy
Pelosi declared, "We won last night" because a Democrat (who campaigned
against the public option) won a special House contest in upstate New
York after a bruising intra-Republican fight.
There's spin and then there's vertigo. Contemplating the possibility
that a Republican (a what?) might actually win the Senate seat made
vacant by Ted Kennedy's death a Republican, moreover, who explicitly
promised to be the 41st vote to uphold a filibuster of the health care
behemoth Pelosi's spin cycle went into overdrive. Rattling like a
clothes dryer missing one foot, she declared on Jan. 18, "Let's remove
all doubt. We will have health care one way or another." And even as the
returns were announced, she insisted that "we are right on course."
As the staggering upset in Massachusetts came into focus, some Democrats
faced the music. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., expressed disappointment,
but realism: "I feel strongly that the Democratic majority in Congress
must respect the process and make no effort to bypass the electoral
results." Sen. James Webb, D-Va., called Brown's election a "referendum"
on the health care legislation and advised "suspending" further votes
until the newest senator was seated. Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., and Joe
Lieberman, I-Conn., suggested that the Democratic Party had veered too
far to the left.
Speaking of the left, Andy Stern of the Service Employees International
Union diagnosed the Massachusetts loss as a rebuke to Democrats for not
yet passing health care reform. "Make no mistake," he said, "political
paralysis resulted in electoral failure."
A voice from the fringe? Well, perhaps. But nothing with which House
Majority Leader Steny Hoyer would quibble. Like Stern, he inferred that
voters were upset at Republican obstructionism. "I think what the public
is angry about is they see, first of all, an opposition for opposition's
sake." Oh. And the voters expressed this anger at Republicans by
electing one more to the Senate? From a state that has not elected a
Republican senator since 1967?
But the most obtuse whistler past the graveyard was Obama adviser David
Axelrod, who denied that the Brown victory was a blow to health care
legislation. This was a bit thick even for the interlocutor on MSNBC.
Savannah Guthrie asked, "How can you interpret this in any other way
that it is a total rejection of health care reform, given the fact that
the candidate that won resoundingly would sign his autograph '41' the
41st vote against health care reform?" Axelrod tried to be soothing. "
… There are messages here. We hear those messages, but there is a
tendency in this town … to overblow things … And I don't think it's
about that one particular issue. I think there's a general sense of
discontent about the economy and there's a general sense of discontent
about this town. That's why we were elected. We are committed to doing
something about it."
If Republican victories in three states that voted for Obama (New Jersey
by 15 points, Virginia by 7, and Massachusetts by 26) were not evidence
enough, polls have been showing since July that Americans are opposed to
the health reform oozing its way through Congress. A November 2009
Gallup survey found 53 percent saying they disapproved of the way
President Obama was handling health care. An ABC News/Washington Post
poll in December found the same. In January, a Quinnipiac poll found
that 58 percent disapproved.
The Obama administration amply enjoyed its opportunity to exult over its
defeated rivals in 2008. But the spirit of "I trump you," which imbued
the first year of the administration, has led to overreach and now to
rebuke. It's one thing to disdain Republicans. It's another to dis the