The Loss in Massachusetts: Lessons for Democrats to Learn

Liberal Democrats might attempt to spin the shocking victory of Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts by claiming the loss was a result of a poor campaign by Martha Coakley. Would that be so. In fact, this was a defeat not of the messenger but of the message -- and the sooner progressive Democrats face up to that fact, the better.

It's the substance, stupid!

According to polls, fears about the Democrats' health-care proposal played a prominent role in Mr. Brown's victory yesterday. In the last several months, the minority congressional Republicans have dominated the message on health care -- and imprinted on the Democratic Party the perception that we stand for big government, higher taxes, and health insecurity when it comes to Medicare.

How is that possible? The Democrats have a simple message on health care that has still not really gotten through: If our bill passes, you never have to worry about getting, or losing, health insurance for the rest of your life. How is it that so few people have heard that message?

Then there were the two "deals" that put congressional Democrats in a worse light than the infamous "bridge to nowhere" -- as impossible as that might have seemed -- as an emblem of the special interest politics Barack Obama ran against. We Democrats had to explain to Massachusetts voters and other Americans why non-Nebraskans and nonunion members have to pay more taxes, while Nebraskans and union members get to pay less. Those two deals seem to have alienated most people across the political spectrum. That's not easy.

Somehow, in the last 12 months, we allowed the party of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to morph into the party of George McGovern (or more accurately, his most ardent supporters) and Howard Dean, who called for the defeat of the Democratic health-care bill if it had neither a public option or Medicare buy-in. (He couldn't possibly have been speaking for the 31 million uninsured people in taking that all-or-nothing position).

In 1996, Mr. Clinton was the first Democrat to win reelection since FDR-expanding the electoral map once again into western, southern, and sunbelt states. He did so by creating a new ideological hybrid for a still-progressive Democratic Party: balanced-budget fiscal conservatism, cultural moderation, and liberal social programs administered by a "lean and mean government." This New Democrat combination appealed to Ross Perot independents concerned about deficits, and also traditional Republican suburbanites who were culturally moderate on issues like abortion and gay rights but opposed to high taxes and wasteful, big-government bureaucracy.

Then, in 2008, Barack Obama added something extra: a commitment to a "new politics" that transcended the "red" versus "blue" partisan divide. He explained this concept clearly in his 2004 Democratic Convention keynote speech and during his 2008 presidential campaign. It meant compromise, consensus and bipartisanship, even if that meant only incremental change. The purists on the left of the Democratic Party who demanded the "public option" or no bill at all apparently forgot that candidate Obama's health-care proposal did not include a public option; nor did it include a government mandate for everyone to either purchase insurance or pay a significant tax approximating the cost of that insurance -- the "pay or play provision" in both the Senate and House bills.

Bottom line: We liberals need to reclaim the Democratic Party with New Democrat positions of Bill Clinton and the New Politics/bipartisan aspirations of Barack Obama -- a party that is willing to meet half-way with conservatives and Republicans even if that means only step-by-step reforms on health care and other issues that do not necessarily involve big-government solutions.

That's the lesson that Massachusetts Democrats and independent voters were telling national Democrats yesterday. The question isn't just, will we listen? The question is, will we stop listening to the strident, purist base of our party who seem to prefer defeat to winning elections and no change at all if they don't get all the change they want.

Stay tuned.

Originally published at

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Mr. Davis, an attorney and a weekly columnist for "The Hill" newspaper, is former special counsel to President Bill Clinton from 1996-98. He is the author of Scandal: How 'Gotcha' Politics Is Destroying America (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).