Scott Brown's Shot Heard 'Round the World: What If?

Tuesday, 19 Jan 2010 01:24 PM

By David A. Patten

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Political pundits are running out of superlatives to describe the fallout President Barack Obama faces if Republican Scott Brown captures the Senate seat that the late liberal lion Ted Kennedy held for more than four decades, in a state with a 3-to-1 Democratic voter registration advantage.

Although the Democratic get-out-the-vote machine and heavy snowfalls in Brown strongholds have left the outcome very much in doubt, the most recent polls show a powerful surge favoring the GOP challenger.

Anti-Obamacare sentiment in the Bay State, as well as a series of damaging gaffes by Brown's opponent, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, have propelled him into the lead by double digits, according to some polls.

Obama aides reportedly have begun to advise Democratic leaders privately that they consider the race a lost cause.

Already, analysts are beginning to assess the political fallout from what Suffolk University pollster David Paleologos predicts will be a political "shot heard 'round the world." But in some ways, the impact is difficult to gauge, simply because the scope of the turnabout in Massachusetts is almost unprecedented.

A Coakley defeat despite Obama's heavy personal investment in the race might constitute the biggest upset in modern political history, some political pundits say. Obama taped robocalls, made a campaign appearance, blasted his e-mail list, and is appearing in a last-minute Coakley ad that is blanketing Massachusetts airwaves – all perhaps to no avail.

It is a stunning reversal, given that polls showed Coakley coasting along with a 30-point lead only a few months ago.

Here are the sea changes to expect in the immediate future if Brown wins, according to a wide range of experts and analysts:

Beware the Spinmeisters

The first reverberation, political experts say, will be massive media coverage and a full-court press by the Obama administration and Democrats to spin the upset to their advantage – as difficult as that may be.

Look for the administration to send out surrogates who will say the people have spoken and the administration has heard their message. The administration will go back to the political drawing board, they'll say, while pointing out that Democrats still have strong majorities in Congress.

"We're told that the president is going to come back fighting," Politico's Mike Allen said Tuesday on MSNBC's “Morning Joe” program. "We're going to hear the president with much more tough, populist language. We heard him out there saying, 'We're going to get our money back from the banks.' We heard him say Sunday at that [Coakley] rally, 'The bankers don't need another senator in Washington.'

"And so even though they'll have to accept smaller victories, you're going to hear the president in a fighting mood trying to say, 'Look, I said change was going to be hard. Whoa! Change was harder than I thought,'" Allen said.

Obamacare in the Balance

A lot of attention has focused on whether the president's healthcare reforms, which both houses of Congress are revising, will be a casualty if Brown wins and the GOP gains its 41st vote in the Senate – enough to mount a filibuster.

Of course, Democrats are working on a "plan B" in case Coakley loses. But while there are certainly parliamentary avenues available by which healthcare reform still could be enacted, skittish Democrats up for re-election may find those options politically unpalatable. With public opposition to Obamacare continuing to rise, at some point the question becomes how much damage Democrats are willing to sustain.

New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote that ramming healthcare reform through after a Coakley defeat would be "political suicide."

"It would be the act of a party so arrogant, elitist and contemptuous of popular wisdom that it would not deserve to govern," he writes. "Marie Antoinette would applaud, but voters would rage."

Even firebrand New York Democrat Anthony Weiner said on "Morning Joe" Tuesday that “I think you can make a pretty good argument that healthcare might be dead” if Coakley loses.

There will be fierce liberal arguments to proceed at any cost, however.

Facing voters in the midterm elections without having acted on the president's primary policy initiative would be a formula for disaster at the polls, they'll say.

Obama's Big Agenda

Election years are known mostly as legislative wastelands – no one wants to pass a big-ticket item that an opponent could use against him a few months later. After Democrats shake off the effects of the Brown haymaker, look for that to be even more the case.

Although Congress will still be under pressure to pass measures that promise to boost employment and revive the economy, much of the administration's transformative agenda will be put on the shelf. Energy cap-and-trade legislation was already a non-starter in the Senate, and it would certainly remain so. Chances of passing immigration reform that includes some indirect form of amnesty for illegal aliens would be remote indeed.

"It’s hard to see how the more controversial parts of Obama’s agenda get passed now, at least after healthcare reform, which Democrats can ram through in various ways, quickly, if they want," Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, told Newsmax. "I would bet many Democrats would say they’ve given enough blood at the office. Now they’ll spend their energy trying to find a way to get re-elected."

And as the Brown-Coakley race demonstrates, that won't be easy for Democrats to do. But look for Obama to continue to cater to his left-leaning political base; in the aftermath of Coakley-Brown, that may be all he's got left.

It would be too extreme to say the shocking setback in Massachusetts would transform Obama into lame-duck status. But given the legislative gridlock he can expect anyway in an election year, the remainder of his term could prove to be a very difficult battle indeed.

A 'Plan B' for Everything

David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, says a Coakley-Obama defeat will "totally change how the administration approaches the next nine months."

Democrats are looking furiously for "Plan B" on healthcare reform if the political balance shifts in the Senate. But Paleologos says the administration's legislative strategies will all have to change.

"That's tells me strategically they're going to have to have a fallback for every other issue," Paleologos told Newsmax, "and to work on anyone that's borderline in the Senate.

"And in fact it might bind the administration's hands, which isn't going to help at the polls, especially if the recession doesn't sort of bottom out, and people [don't] begin to feel that we're turning around."

What remains to be seen, however, is whether Team Obama can be flexible enough ideologically to follow the course of former President Bill Clinton, who responded to his midterm defeat by moving to the center politically.

Brickbats From the Left

As much as the president faces criticism from the right, a defeat in Massachusetts will evoke howls of protests from prominent figures on the left.

Expect MSNBC hosts Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann, and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, to lead the charge. Although liberal enclaves may circle the wagons initially. they also will complain that the reason for the president's sagging fortunes is that he hasn't gone leftward enough.

Obama needs to return to his core values, they will say, ignore the growing cries for fiscal restraint, and propose more big-government programs to jump start the flagging economy. Sometimes, it seems, failure isn't an orphan after all.

Rediscovering Bipartisanship

The president came into office promising to nurture bipartisanship but felt he really didn't have to work with Republicans because his party enjoyed a supermajority.

The latest example of the administration's hubris: locking Republicans out of the Obamacare negotiations, and allowing C-SPAN to televise the weeks-long proceedings for only a single hour.

If Obama hopes to make any progress in Congress, he'll have to scale back his ambitions and get at least some Republicans to sign on to his proposals. Look for him to soften the barrage of anti-Bush rhetoric.

So the irony of a Republican win in Massachusetts today is that it could encourage the president to begin to deliver on his campaign pledge for a new style of politics.

"They will need to fulfill the promise of bipartisanship, because it's now the reality," Paleologos told Newsmax. "With the numbers potentially being 59 to 41, that changes so much of the methodology of doing the work in Congress. And that's going to have a significant impact."

No More Mystique

Remember how international leaders jostled to have their picture taken with the new president after the inauguration? Hollywood stars tried to cadge a visit to the White House, and his choice of a family pet became a front-page news story?

Well, if all the president's men and a bevy of attack ads couldn't save Coakley from a bitter loss, the Obama honeymoon is arguably over once and for all. Post-Coakley, he may find he's no longer the darling he once was on Capitol Hill, let alone a celebrity when he meets the leaders of other countries.

"If Brown wins, Obama will have spent a huge amount of political capital and cache for naught," Boston University professor and political analyst Tobe Berkovitz told Newsmax. "This will have a huge impact on the president's ability to fly in and out for campaign appearances for democrats at the start of the 2010 election.

"He's used up several political lives stumping for candidates in 2009 and 2010 and promoting his policies for economic recovery, the war against terrorism, and most significantly healthcare reform," Berkovitz said. "A loss of the 'Kennedy seat' would be a huge repudiation of the Obama and Democratic agenda. This might not prove insurmountable in the long run, but will place the president and the democrats in a massive tailspin into the spring.

Presidential promises to leverage his popularity on behalf of candidates who support his agenda will ring hollow, Berkovitz said. The president remains personally popular with voters, but that status may now be at risk. In fact, don't be surprised if Democrats from conservative districts begin to distance themselves from a president whose popularity appears to be on the wane.

"The 41-59 party split [in the Senate] will be the least of Obama's problems. He and the democratic leadership will be battling with incumbents up for reelection who will be watching their political careers evaporate, as they march in and out of votes forced by the House and Senate leadership," Berkovitz said.

Congressional Fallout

One of the problems facing White House political strategists has been a rash of Democratic retirements in Congress. Parker Griffith, the erstwhile Democrat from Alabama, even switched parties to avoid the expected midterm bloodbath bearing down on incumbents.

People shouldn't be surprised if even more Democrats opt out of running in November, in the wake of Brown-Coakley, Sabato said.

"Obama was unable to help his candidate in a state [Massachusetts] he carried with 62 percent. He didn’t help Jon Corzine last fall even though he won New Jersey by about a 15 percent [margin]. So you have to wonder where he can make a difference for Democrats in the midterm elections.

"This has got to scare the bejesus out of Democrats everywhere," Sabato told Newsmax. "If Brown can win in Massachusetts, the second-most Democratic state, then what must Democrats who represent Republican states be thinking? It’s possible this will nudge a few more Democrats to retire from Congress."

Republican Gains

As the national political momentum swings away from Democrats, much of it will swing over to Republicans. The bombshell that a GOP win in Massachusetts would represent would bring with it a whole host of benefits for the party of Lincoln and Reagan.

"The national Republican brand will no longer be toxic," commentator and GOP strategist Roger Stone told Newsmax. "Look for party-switchers – moderate and conservative Democrats who switch and jump into statewide races."

Already the party is enjoying a resurgence of enthusiasm from its base, now that the party faithful see that the "Obama miracle" appears astoundingly short lived.

Along with that will come money – lots of it. It is a sad reality of U.S. politics that special-interest lobbyists read the political tea leaves to determine which party's fortunes are on the rise, and then contribute money accordingly in order to buy influence.

Pundits say it was no accident Obama attracted record-breaking donations in his presidential campaign – once the economy tanked in September 2009, it didn't take Svengali to figure out which candidate was likely to win.

Now, the flow of dollars will begin to reverse, meaning GOP candidates will be much better off than in recent elections.

There's another important political impact felt as the pendulum swings to the right: GOP leaders will find it much easier to attract top-drawer candidates willing to toss their hats in the political ring and run for office.

Depending on the district, however, Democrats who step forward to run could be accused of having a death wish.

More Tea

One of the big winners in Massachusetts: the tea party movement. Although tea party leaders kept a low profile in Massachusetts to avoid alienating die-hard Democrats, they poured in resources to help Brown mount his bid to come from behind. An upset victory by a candidate whose No. 1 issue was fiscal restraint can only bolster the tea party faithful.

"The tea party movement, named for a Boston event, will grow as a vehicle for reform," Stone predicted.

Demise of a Media Lovefest

During Obama's first year in office, he basked in positive press the likes of which arguably no previous president had experienced. But with his job-approval numbers in a free-fall – and likely to take even more of a hit in the weeks to come as the media runs postmortems ad nauseam on why he couldn't save Coakley from defeat – Obama will face much tougher questioning.

If Coakley loses, the media universe that will be forced to recognize what the rest of the nation realized a long time ago: The president isn't the ratings magic that the media once thought he was.

The biggest change if Brown wins may be an altered perception that Obama represents a new era in politics. In precisely one year's time, the hope and change promised by his move into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. will be sucked into the Beltway swamp, possibly forever.

All of which raises another question: Can Republican leaders reverse their well-earned reputation for not being able to handle success?

"The Republicans have the ability to make a sow's ear out of the political silk purse that might be handed to them by the voters in Massachusetts," Berkovitz told Newsmax. "Just as the Democrats misread the election of President Obama as a possible realignment rather than a repudiation of the Bush administration.

"The Republicans should place themselves on hubris alert," he said. "The possible win in Massachusetts should be seen as much as a 'throw the bums out' vote as 'vote the Republicans in.'"

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