The Democrats' Dilemma

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Scott Brown - Darren McCollester.jpg
The Massachusetts election is over and the result, a Republican victory, is predictably hurtful to Democrats, whose options for moving legislation forward have been substantially reduced.  But that's nothing compared to the damage that will be done to the party if it actually follows through on its repeated threat to use clever manipulation, backroom maneuvering, and legislative gimmickry to negate the by-now clear will of the American people. 

With health care legislation front-and-center on the Democratic agenda, Democrats have been trounced in Virginia (a state that has been increasingly friendly in recent years to Democratic candidates), New Jersey (a true-blue Democratic bastion), and now Massachusetts, where the demise of street-corner phone booths has eliminated the most suitable venue for Republican precinct meetings. 

The defeat of a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in a state like Massachusetts cannot be ignored.  New Jersey's incumbent governor, Jon Corzine, was notably unpopular, but the leading Democrat in Massachusetts, Governor Deval Patrick, wasn't on the ballot.  This was a protest against Democrats in Washington, not those on Beacon Hill. Liberals have dismissed "tea party" protests against their health care proposals as the bleating of dumb rednecks, nasty, uncaring, and too stupid to even be able to read the bills.  Well, Massachusetts, where this protest took place, is a state with high spending levels of support for the needy, has an African-American governor, voted for an African-American president, and has one of the most highly educated electorates in America--and on election night, they gathered at Scott Brown's victory party to shout, over and over and over again, "forty-one, forty-one, forty-one."  To them, Scott Brown, now  the 41st Republican in the Senate (the magic number to sustain a Republican filibuster) was the vehicle for stopping what they called "Obamacare" dead in its tracks.  This on the heels of a Washington Post-ABC poll that showed most Americans opposed to the legislation.  More significantly, the opposition was not merely the predictable Republican response, but the judgment of Independent voters as well.  In Massachusetts, in fact, Independents, most of whom supported the Republican candidate, have become the single largest voting bloc as voters have increasingly disassociated themselves from the once-dominant Democratic Party.

So how have Washington Democrats responded?  First, with the threat to delay seating the new Massachusetts Senator--the clearest possible signal that the Democratic leadership and the White House simply don't care what the people think. Apparently if there's a way to get around the people, it's worth considering.  With that threat seemingly off the table (the state's fill-in Senator, Paul Kirk, urged that Brown be seated promptly), Democrats now threaten a Plan B, or maybe C, to avoid the usual House-Senate conference committee, or block the possibility of a filibuster (essentially changing the rules in the middle of the game)--all for the purpose of ensuring a victory before the public's voice can weigh in. 

Barney Frank, the sometimes cantankerous but always very smart liberal Massachusetts Congressman, has cautioned his fellow Democrats that it would not be wise to proceed as though the Massachusetts election had not happened.  It's good advice.  If Democrats succeed in passing the kinds of health care legislation they are now weighing, the success will either help them electorally (many of them seem to somehow believe this, much like others believe in the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus) or harm them (a far more likely result).  But in either case, the fallout won't come close to the disaster that will befall Democrats if they now resort to trickery and slick backroom maneuvering to stick a finger in voters' eyes; tell voters their opinions don't matter to a we-know-best Democratic elite and there will be a very long and gloomy November night for Democrats before the year is out.

Photo credit: Darren McCollester/Getty Images


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Mickey Edwards spent 16 years in Congress and 16 years teaching at Harvard and Princeton. He is a director of The Constitution Project and wrote Reclaiming Conservatism. More

Mickey Edwards was a member of Congress for 16 years and a chairman of the House Republican leadership's policy committee. After leaving Congress, he taught at Harvard for 11 years, where he was voted the Kennedy School's most outstanding teacher, and at Princeton for five years. He currently runs a political leadership program for elected officials as Vice President of the Aspen Institute and teaches defense policy and foreign policy at George Washington University. He has been a weekly columnist for The L.A. Times and The Chicago Tribune and is a weekly commentator on National Public Radio. Edwards served for five years as national chairman of the American Conservative Union and the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. He was one of three founding trustees of the Heritage Foundation. In 1980, he directed more than a dozen joint House-Senate policy advisory task forces for Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign. He is a director of The Constitution Project and has chaired task forces for the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution. He served on the American Bar Association task force that condemned President George W. Bush, and his most recent book, Reclaiming Conservatism, was published in 2008.

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