The meaning of Massachusetts

Democrats are far too preoccupied with how to ignore a defeat in Massachusetts, if it turns out that they lose. Do they try to delay Brown's arrival in the Senate? Do they try to push health reform through with reconciliation? Does the House pass the unamended Senate bill, avoiding the need for another vote?

Good questions, no doubt, and not easy to answer. There are pros and cons in each case. But it would be a great error for Democrats to concentrate on these tactical matters as though the scare, let alone outright defeat, in Massachusetts did not raise bigger questions. Coakley might still win, of course. (Nate Silver says the race is too close to call.) But even if she ekes out a narrow victory, Democrats urgently need to stop and think--not about how to cram through health reform while they can, but about why everything is going so wrong.

On the face of it, what is happening in Massachusetts is not politics as usual. Maybe the Coakley embarrassment can be dismissed. Certainly, she has been a pitiful candidate. But at the very least this needs to be argued through, not taken as read. Democrats need to recover some sense of shock at what the polls in Massachusetts are saying.

They also need to ask what the electorate will make of a response that says, "We don't care what the voters think. We know best." I support healthcare reform; for all its flaws, I think the Senate bill is a big step forward. But supporters of the bill must take pause at its unpopularity, which the polls in Massachusetts underline. The plain fact is, the Democrats have failed to make their case. They need to ask why, and start trying to fix it. Finding cunning ways to carry on regardless sends a message of contempt to the electorate, and one thing we know is that the electorate always gets the last word.

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