Lessons From the Massachusetts Defeat

The Massachusetts Senate race is a watershed event that has enormous implications for this political year. The media is intent on making it a referendum on President Obama and his health care reform plan. But that interpretation of the results is just flat wrong.

President Obama maintains a fairly robust 55% approval rate in Massachusetts. And while it is true that the polling indicates that the "Obama Health Reform Plan" as a general concept is not very popular there, the individual components of reform continue to have substantial levels of public support -- both in Massachusetts and around the country.

The fact is that if you see enough TV spots saying that the "Obama health care plan" will cost jobs, take away your freedom, and cut your Medicare (all factually wrong) -- you start to believe it. Because of the massive length of the health care battle, the pro-health care reform forces, have simply been outgunned on TV by the big insurance companies and the Chamber of Commerce (mainly funded by the big insurance companies) that have pockets of infinite depth.

On the other hand, if you ask people if they want to end the ability of insurance companies to use preexisting conditions to deny care; make health insurance available at affordable prices to everyone; require insurance companies to spend the bulk of their premiums on health care instead of profits and CEO salaries; or give people the alternative of a public option -- you get very strong support.

Add to that the fact that 98% of people in Massachusetts have health insurance because of their own state-based health care reform -- and almost 80% are happy with their health insurance -- and it's clear that the race there was not at all a referendum on health care reform.

There are, however, major critical lessons for Democrats in the Massachusetts defeat:

Lesson #1.The big take away: don't run a bad campaign. The Coakley campaign made four critical errors any one of which, by itself, probably cost her the election.

First, they did not follow the first law of the Obama campaign to "leave no stone unturned." Coakley went on vacation in the Caribbean after her primary victory. She didn't campaign and she didn't raise money. When the campaign's pollsters -- the respected firm of Lake Research -- proposed doing a tracking poll after the primary, they were told there was no money. As a result, the campaign was caught flat-footed as Brown began to surge.

The reason you leave no stone unturned in a campaign, it to account for the unexpected. Yes, Coakley was 20 points up on Brown after the primary, but if the campaign was not asleep at the switch it would have discovered the Brown surge while it could still be stopped.

Second, the campaign allowed Brown to define himself -- and Coakley -- for swing voters. When Brown began a wave of advertising between Christmas and New Years, it went unanswered. The moment Brown began to surge, the campaign should have hit back and defined him as a shill for the Big Banks and insurance companies -- not the attractive, charismatic outsider he appeared to be to many voters.

Third, the campaign allowed their candidate to be perceived as the elite insider -- and ceded to Brown the role of crusading outsider. Democrats win when they appear to be what they ought to be -- populist agents of change -- not competent insider technocrats. That is particularly true when people are angry at the status quo.

Forth, unbelievably, the campaign had no field program. It was left to the heroic efforts of Organize for America (OFA) to try to save the day by improvising a field program in the last week and a half. More than anything else, Coakley lost because of a wave of Republican turnout. Until OFA arrived there was no apparatus in place to increase Democratic turnout. That borders on political malpractice. OFA did everything it could. Over the last weekend OFA made over 1.2 million turn out calls to potential Democratic voters. But great field programs -- particularly door to door programs that are the most effective means of boosting turnout -- must be organized with several months of lead time -- not a week and a half.

OFA proved once again how invaluable it is to the Democratic Party. Were it not for their efforts -- and the Obama trip to Massachusetts -- Coakley could have been routed in a blowout that would have shaken Democratic confidence to its foundation.

Even with all of these problems, Coakley might have still pulled it out had Brown himself not been an exciting, engaging, energetic candidate with an interesting history who ran a flawless campaign. In the end, elections are about the candidate and their campaigns. People vote for people; and to the voters the quality of their campaigns is a powerful symbol of the qualities of the candidate.

Lesson #2: There is a great deal of anger in America that is focused first and foremost on people's own economic prospects and frustration that change appears so difficult. Democrats have to do everything in our power to deliver jobs. And we must focus that anger at the people who caused the economic meltdown and are delaying fundamental change: the insurance companies, the Big Wall Street banks, the energy companies.

The fact of the matter is that when people are angry, if you don't focus that anger on the people who really caused their problems -- they will focus it on the people in charge -- in this case Democrats -- even if they were not mainly to blame.

It was the financial sector -- Wall Street speculators, the Big Banks, the insurance companies -- that caused the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression. And the Republicans -- and their "markets uber alles" philosophy -- made it all possible.

Democrats must have a clear, populist frame to win elections in 2010. In Massachusetts the campaign began to talk about the President's proposal to tax Wall Street in the final hours, but it was too late. Coakley had allowed herself to be framed as an insider, a technocrat versus a crusading populist outsider -- even though Brown will, in fact, go to Washington and vote down the line for the big insurance companies and Wall Street Banks.

To appeal to independent voters we do not have to be "more moderate" or "measured" as some have argued. We must be bolder and more populist.

And the problem is not -- as one commentator argued last night -- a frustration with the "fiscal overreach" of the Democrats. The problem is that we have not produced enough jobs. Democrats must pass a large jobs program now, and the deficit can't stand in the way. And let's remember, it was George Bush who turned a Clinton surplus into more debt that all other previous president's combined.

Lesson #3: We have to keep our base inspired and mobilized -- to make change and to win elections. The Massachusetts special election taught the same lesson as the Democrats' catastrophic loss in 1994 -- we have to inspire our voters to go to the polls. Democrats lost control of Congress in 1994 because our voters stayed home.

In Massachusetts, the right wing base was infused with excitement over the possibility of taking progressive icon Ted Kennedy's Senate seat -- and hobbling Obama's agenda in the Senate. The Democratic base was not inspired by the relatively bland Coakley and has been generally dispirited by the difficulty of passing health care, Lieberman's sabotage of the public option and the general recognition that Barack Obama can not simply wave a wand and make change.

The insurance companies, Wall Street banks and energy companies haven't just rolled over and played dead. They have put up tough, tooth-and-nail battles to defend the status quo.

Though I don't believe that the shape of the health care bill would have likely been a great deal different, there is no question that President Obama would be in better political shape with the base of the Democratic Party if he had been a more forceful advocate of the public option and appeared more forceful in taking on Wall Street.

On the other hand, Progressive leaders across America need to direct their own frustration at the forces that are defending the status quo and standing in the way of the Obama agenda. They need to take personal responsibility for rallying the base against our true enemies -- Wall Street, the insurance industry, the energy companies and the Republicans -- not encouraging cynicism and disaffection of base voters. That sense of frustration lead directly to a victory for Brown and now we are stuck with one more huge impediment to change in the U.S. Senate.

Lesson #4: Democrats must do whatever is necessary to pass a good health care reform now. The President, House Speaker and Senate Majority Leader have all pledged to do just that. The absolute worst response to the Republican victory in Massachusetts would be to cut and run. We have to muster our forces and do whatever is necessary to get it done.

Bad enough that the late Senator Edward Kennedy's seat is now in the hands of a Republican that does not share his progressive values. We must do whatever is necessary to assure that the fulfillment of his life long dream of health care for all is not thwarted as well.

That will probably require that some portion of the bill be passed through the budget reconciliation process that requires only 51 votes, now that the Senate no longer has 60 members who caucus with the Democrats. If so, so be it.

The idea that a minority of 41 members of the Senate can thwart the will of the majority is fundamentally undemocratic in the first place.

In fact, the Senate needs to change its rules to eliminate the abusive use of filibusters that now effectively require 60 votes to pass any significant piece of legislation.

The Massachusetts loss was a set back for the Progressive agenda. But it is in times of adversity that voters get to test the mettle of leaders and political parties. Time to square our shoulders, stand up straight, and show America that we can really make fundamental change.

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the recent book: "Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win," available on Amazon.com.