Around the Halls: Scott Brown’s Special Election Victory and the Congressional Agenda

With Scott Brown’s victory in the Massachusetts special election for the U.S. Senate, the 60-seat Democratic super-majority is about to disappear. Brown has promised to be the 41st vote against the current health care reform bill, calling the passage of the legislation into question. Scholars from around the halls of Brookings offer their analysis of what Brown’s victory means for health care reform, the economy, the Democratic majority and President Obama’s agenda.

In this edition:

  Push Health Care Reform Over the Finish Line
Thomas Mann, Senior Fellow, Governance Studies

Scott Brown’s stunning victory in Massachusetts has national and local roots. An inchoate public fear and anger with the abysmal state of the economy, almost always directed at the party in power, put a once-safe seat at risk. A desultory, gaffe-filled campaign by Democrat Martha Coakley, contrasted with the spirited and connected campaign of Brown, provided the margin of her defeat. This is a story not of ideological overreach but of economic performance. There is no reason to believe the Democrats would be in better political shape today had Obama intervened less aggressively to counter the economic recession and financial meltdown or deferred health reform until some latter date.

Now, having invested so heavily in a health reform plan remarkably similar to the one adopted by Massachusetts and praised by its residents, including Scott Brown, Obama and the Democrats must reject the argument that the election was a referendum on health reform and do whatever it takes to push it over the finish line. The best alternative, one very difficult to achieve, is to persuade the House to pass the Senate version, with an explicit commitment to follow with legislative changes incorporated in the compromise between the House and Senate bills largely agreed to, using existing reconciliation instructions to allow that to pass the Senate with a simple majority. Panic among congressional Democrats may make this impossible, but failure on health reform will quickly brand the Democrats as the party that can’t govern and quicken the time at which they return to the minority.

  Turn to the Economy
William Galston, Senior Fellow, Governance Studies

Although some pundits and Democratic officials are attributing the outcome of the Massachusetts election simply to local issues or the shortcomings of the Democratic senatorial nominee, the evidence tilts strongly in the other direction. The victorious Republican, Scott Brown, campaigned across the state on the promise to provide the 41st vote against the health care reform legislation now under consideration, and there is no doubt that he will do so.

His victory has a number of implications. First, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Republican critique of the proposed health reforms has more resonance than the Democrats’ defense, among independents and moderate to conservative Democrats as well. Although we lack exit polls, a number of pre-election surveys indicate that Brown was beating Coakley by 2-1 among independents while garnering about one quarter of the Democratic vote. Democrats must now ask themselves whether there is anything they can do to improve health reform’s standing in the eyes of the public.

Second, the altered arithmetic in the Senate means that if health reform is to pass, Democratic leaders will have to adopt a new and risky strategy. They cannot proceed in the usual fashion, reconciling the differences between the House and Senate bills and then resubmitting the compromise to both chambers. As long as Senate Republicans remain united, that effort is bound to fail, because they can successfully filibuster the conference report and prevent its final adoption. The most plausible alternative is some version of a two-track strategy: on Track 1, the House passes the Senate bill and sends it to the president for his signature; on Track 2, the House and Senate pass as many negotiated changes as they can, using the reconciliation process.

Third, Democrats have only bad choices. If they proceed with health reform, they will be accused of arrogantly disregarding the will of the people. If they abandon the effort, they will be viewed as weak and feckless. In my judgment, they should proceed, but it is not hard to construct a reasonable argument to the contrary.

Finally, the people of Massachusetts have sent Washington Democrats an unmistakable message: we’re unhappy about the economy and don’t think you’re doing enough to fix it. Prolonging the wrangling over health care will only compound the political damage. Whatever the administration and congressional leaders choose to do about health reform, they should make and execute their choice without delay and then turn to the economy, a pivot that should be the explicit highlight of President Obama’s State of the Union address next week.

  Is It the Massachusetts Economy (Stupid)?
Alan Berube, Senior Fellow, Metropolitan Policy Program

So the competition for the most compelling explanation for yesterday’s upset in the Massachusetts special election, in which Republican Scott Brown won the seat that Ted Kennedy held for 47 years, is well underway.  Martha Coakley ran a terrible campaign, Brown is an appealing guy, voters are upset about the economy, Massachusetts has already enacted its own version of health reform, Democrats at the state level are unpopular, Doug Flutie, etc.

Let’s look a little closer at the economy argument, but specifically in the Massachusetts context.  In November, the state’s unemployment rate was 8.8 percent, below the U.S. rate of 10.0 percent.  The state’s three major metropolitan areas—Boston, Worcester, and Springfield—have all been middling performers over the full course of the recession, but their job losses have generally been less severe than the national average.  In fact, Worcester was one of the only large metropolitan areas nationwide that added jobs in the third quarter (July through September) of 2009.  Which makes it all the more ironic that Worcester seems to be one of the areas of the state where Brown is running strongest.

Perhaps, then, the other non-economic explanations for Coakley’s and Brown’s performance have more merit.  Or maybe Massachusetts voters are exercising their frustration at the state of the national economy, rather than their local economies.  Either way, the upshot is that if the Massachusetts economy spurred voters to pull the lever for Republicans, it could spell bad news for Democrats in the much more economically depressed portions of the country come this fall.