An Election Or A Message? Interpreting The Brown Out

Democrats lost the Senate seat held by Ted Kennedy to a Republican no one knew two weeks ago. In doing so, they may have also lost their chance of passing health care reform this year.

Is this HUGE?

How one interprets the race will determine what effect it has on Congress, the president and 2010. The media, the cablers, I predict, will explode in an orgy of over-interpretation; the biggest upset, turning a complex election into a simple statement or message.

EPOCHAL? No. Important? Of course. As has been pointed out, Democrats maintain a large party majority. But it is increasingly clear that they do not have a political majority -- and there is a difference. There aren't enough Democratic senators to pass the agenda that the majority of Democrats have coalesced around. But this has been obvious for a while.

Democrats will say: See? Voters want results and blame Democrats for not producing results. So -- Do more. Fight harder. Get results. (This will require more spending and higher taxes, but we won't say so.)After the furor wears off, it's going to be Congress who prolongs the story. If they do try to ram though health care reform, this story has legs. "Against the will of the people..." and "...after a decisive message from even the bluest of states," etc.  That's tough for Democrats to swallow, because they've got 59 votes -- a majority -- and yet Republicans, on the basis of this campaign, will have won the messaging wars. They've got the heckler's veto, as James Fallows puts it, and aren't afraid to use it. (Senator Jim Webb told CNN that he thinks the Senate should wait until Scott Brown is seated until a final vote on health care is scheduled.)

Democrats tend to panic. Tonight, a good number will be considering whether they can win in November, contemplating retirements. Others will be contemplating primary challenges. (Michael Bennet*, watch out for Andrew Romanoff! in Colorado.) Panic begets panic. It sends the message that Democrats cannot govern.

Independents are angry -- irate, even, at steps that the White House insists were necessary to, well, save the world: the bailouts, the way Wall Street seems to not to be sharing the pain, massive government spending. They're also mad about government competence and nervous about health care, and channeling it into specific complaints about the debt and deficit. They also believe that the administration has managed the recovery from the perspective of Wall Street, not Main Street. Republicans insist they are also mad that what they perceive as Obama's agenda "represents huge, irresponsible, socialist, intrusive government." (The phrasing comes from Democrat Jesse Singal of Campus Progress.)  Indeed, that's not reality: Obama has spent the past year fighting with liberals, haggling with liberals over health care. The White House spent days courting Joe Lieberman, Ben Nelson and Olympia Snowe; days courting the insurance industry; days refusing to pressure Democratic committee chairs; days trying to get GOP support (though not too many); days trying to figure out how to pacify labor unions and progressives in the House.

By the way: the state legislature is very unpopular in Mass. and run by Democrats. The governor is unpopular and is a Democrat. Like many other states, Massachusetts is struggling with enormous budgetary problems; taxes are being raised and spending are being cut. It's not a good time to be a Democrat.

*Full disclosure: Bennet is brother of Atlantic Editor James Bennet.

Republicans will say: See? Voters are fed up with Democratic policies. So -- stop Democratic policies. (This will require painful spending cuts and is unrealistic during a recession, but we won't say so.)