The Democratic panic attack started well before Martha Coakley saw her party's 60-seat Senate majority--and with it the chances to pass the detailed platform its once-immensely-popular president had campaigned on--slip into the hands of an apparently likable, salt-of-the-earth Republican named Scott Brown in one of the most Democratic states in the nation.
Cognizance settled into the Washington-based nerve centers of politics and media last week that Brown really was ahead in the race, as poll after reputable poll came out saying that was the case, and as Coakley produced gaffe after excruciating gaffe in the final five days of the campaign.
But optimism held on, and the Democrats' panic didn't bloom into a vicious, hysterical festival of finger-pointing and self-doubt until Election Day--when Democratic insiders blamed the Coakley campaign, a campaign adviser blamed national Democrats, and a party official accused the campaign of "the worst case of political malpractice in memory"--and now, even with some more tempered, on-message reactions prevailing after the results came in Tuesday night, it is clear that some Democrats are in a full-blown crisis of confidence about the agenda they've pursued over the past year and whether Democratic lawmakers will still have jobs after 2010.
Shortly after the race was called, Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), a Blue Dog-esque moderate representing a moderate state, who came into Congress in the 2006 Democratic wave, released a statement suggesting Democrats should freeze health care reform in the Senate, suspending any votes until Brown gets seated--something Democratic leaders may or may not do.
"In many ways, the campaign in Massachusetts became a referendum not only on health care reform, but also on the openness and integrity of our government process. It is vital that we restore the respect of the American people in our system of government and in our leaders. To that end, I believe it would only be fair and prudent that we suspend further votes on health care legislation until Senator-elect Brown is seated," Webb said.
It was an analysis that confirmed Democrats' fears about the race, and Webb wasn't alone in offering it: many of his fellow partisans, reacting to the Coakley loss, took the election at face value as a referendum on health care--some going much further, insinuating it as a sign that Democrats have headed in the wrong direction altogether this past year--a take that rang eerily similar, at times, to how Republicans had categorized the race so loudly and insistently in the previous days.
Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN), another moderate (who, like Webb, was at one time rumored to be Obama's favored running mate in 2008) called for the Democratic Party to heed the lesson of Massachusetts even before votes were counted in the Bay State.
Democrats would find themselves "in even further catastrophe" if they failed to learn from the "wake-up call" of Coakley's pending defeat, Bayh said.
"It's why moderates and independents even in a state as Democratic as Massachusetts just aren't buying our message," Bayh told ABC News. "They just don't believe the answers we are currently proposing are solving their problems. That's something that has to be corrected."
The crisis of confidence wasn't limited to moderates. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY), a progressive, appeared on MSNBC as votes were beginning to be tallied and predicted the death of health care reform, at least in its current state, if Coakley lost--giving up on the idea of cobbling together a compromise and passing it before Brown becomes a senator.
"I don't see how we get this done," he said.
"[W]hatever the results are tonight is pretty clear that a lot of voters don't like the direction we're going on health care," Weiner said, suggesting Democrats "take a step back" and try to pass a scaled-down version of health reform as part of a jobs bill.
Passing the Senate bill through the House, or quickly finishing negotiations and trying to finagle a Senate vote that would include still-sitting replacement Senator Paul Kirk, are still options being discussed, but Weiner was ready to discount them completely.
Mary Anne Marsh, a prominent Massachusetts-based Democratic strategist, suggested on Fox that, while Coakley had proven to be a strong candidate in the Democratic primary, "this certainly is going to send a chill across the country to every Democrat with a title in front of their names, especially if you're up in 2010."
Even Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Menendez sized up this election as a bleak result for Democrats: "I have no interest in sugar coating what happened in Massachusetts. There is a lot of anxiety in the country right now. Americans are understandably impatient," he said in a more measured statement on the results.
Arianna Huffington, appearing on MSNBC, called it a referendum on President Obama's Wall Street policies, asserting that "he is not believed" when he talks about taking on the status quo, "because he is the status quo."
"In the end, this is not about Massachusetts, and this is not about Scott Brown and Martha Coakley, this is about a national Democratic Party that has lost its way, and this is the time to course correct," Huffington said, after suggesting that Democrats risk losing the House and Senate in 2010, even as she posed the loss as a blessing in disguise and an opportunity for Democrats to change directions.
So some Democratic voices Tuesday night gave up--completely--on the notion that this race wasn't a referendum on Obama, on health care, or on the Democratic Party. Many of them gave little or no weight to the notion that this happened because of Coakley's insufficient (in hindsight) campaigning, lack of effective messaging, repeated mistakes and gaffes in closing the deal, or lack of force in the final few weeks, either as the fault of her own campaign or of national Democrats for not intervening sooner, or even that Scott Brown just turned out to be a good campaigner and beat out a popular statewide officeholder who had decided to play it safe.
To some Democrats, the election was a sign of political Apocalypse, just as opponents of health care reform and the Obama agenda had made it out to be--an Apocalypse that not only meant Democrats should rethink their commitment to health care reform, into which they had poured their entire political efforts and identities for the past seven months, but that hinted at bad, bad things to come in the 2010 midterms if the party didn't change directions, drastically, right now.
Of course, this was not true of all Democrats--just some. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine, and Health Care for America Now! National Campaign Manager Richard Kirsch all put out measured, calming statements: Reid thanked stand-in Paul Kirk for his service (which, notably he phrased in the past tense, possibly indicating that Kirk won't vote on health reform after Tuesday's results?), Kaine expressed disappointment but thanked Democratic and Organizing for America staff for their work on the campaign, and Kirsch said this was not a referendum on health care reform, but on a particular candidate.
No evident panic in the upper ranks of the Democratic world.
But the White House is now being inundated with advice--both from those who would rethink the agenda and from those who say Democrats should press boldly ahead--that Coakley lost not because voters rejected the White House's agenda, but because Democrats have failed to pass it through Congress fast enough.
SEIU President Andy Stern and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka fall into that camp. In their statements on the race, they forecast disaster for Democrats in 2010 if they don't move forward with the '08 agenda swiftly and boldly, criticizing congressional Democrats for failing to pass health care so far.
"The reason Ted Kennedy's seat is no longer controlled by a Democrat is clear: Washington's inability to deliver the change voters demanded in November 2008. Make no mistake, political paralysis resulted in electoral failure," Stern said.
"[T]he Senate bears the consequences for its failure to act decisively but the American people are the ones left paying the price. If our elected officials don't recognize that every day more working families fall victim to Washington's failure to act, the elections next November will result in the same," Stern added.
"Tonight's election should be a sobering reminder to candidates running in 2010. The American people are urgently expecting RESULTS from Washington," Trumka said. "If elected officials want the support of working families they need to fight to win legislation on jobs, health care and financial regulation. Americans need champions who will fight for their cause."
It is hard to imagine Democrats turning back from health care reform after coming so far with it; the various options open to them, and the political viability of each, will soon become clear.
The party lost one very important Senate seat in a race that, a month ago, no one would have predicted would go to a Republican--a race so safe that it seemed, at least, to fly under the radar. It is a loss that will make it difficult for Democrats to pass not only health care, but energy reform, education reform, and a budget to their liking. With moderates like Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Ben Nelson (D-NE) in their caucus, things were difficult before; but now Democrats must court a single vote from the likes of Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Susan Collins (R-ME), the only true moderates left in the GOP caucus, to pass anything.
Right now, Democrats are experiencing the pangs of lost possibility; frustration and anxiety, while not shown in all corners of the Democratic hierarchy, are palpable in others.