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What Will Become of the Democrats?

After Martha Coakley called Scott Brown to concede the special election to fill Ted Kennedy's old seat in the Senate, a friend of mine confidently predicted that not only would health care reform likely collapse, but that the Democrats would also probably lose both houses of Congress. And with the other party controlling Congress, President Obama would be have a hard time winning reelection in 2012. After just a year, he told me, Obama's agenda was dead, all because a bunch of Massachusetts moderates voted for a Republican instead of a Democrat.

There is no question that Brown's election was a major blow to the Democrats. With it, they lost the 60th vote they needed to keep the Republicans from filibustering—although it should be noted that the 60 votes they had before were tenuous enough to make the threat of filibuster real as it was. That will make it harder to pass health care reform, never mind other Democratic priorities like finance reform and cap-and-trade legislation. In addition, Brown's victory is a sign of just how frustrated many people are with the Democrats' inability to do anything about unemployment or to pass an inspiring health care bill. Not only does it give Democrats real reason to worry about what might happen in the fall midterm elections, it shows Republicans that Democrats can be beaten—and if they can be beaten in Massachusetts they can be beaten anywhere—as well as gives Democrats in more conservative districts good reason to worry about their seats.

Democrats started to point fingers at each other before the election was over. First, White House senior adviser David Axelrod blamed the Coakley campaign for having failed to ask for help earlier. The Coakley campaign immediately hit back by leaking a memo blaming her loss on the unpopularity of Obama's programs and on a lack of support from the national party. In response, a senior party official told Politico that it was just "wishful thinking from a pollster, candidate and campaign team that were caught napping and are going to allow one of the worst debacles in American political history to happen on their watch that they are at the eleventh hour are going to blame others."

Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN), meanwhile, blamed the loss on the left-wing base of the party. Bayh, of course, is up for a election this year, and like many Democrats understandably worried about losing moderates in his own state. But it is hard to see how the issue could be anger at the Left, when, as I have argued, the Left has gotten almost nothing it wants since President Obama's election. Certainly, the health care bill in front of Congress—probably the biggest issue in the Massachusetts election—is not at all what progressives wanted. As Glenn Greenwald says, "The Left wanted a single-payer system, then settled for a public option, then an opt-out public option, then Medicare expansion—only to get none of it, instead being handed a bill that forces every American to buy health insurance from the private insurance industry." In fact, as he points out, the idea of public option—killed by more conservative Democrats like Bayh—was actually one of the only parts of the health care plan that most people liked.

There's no question that the political climate has gotten more difficult for Democrats. It would be no surprise if they lost the House in November. The latest polls give a generic Republican running for Congress a slight lead over a generic Democrat, where the generic Democrat had a ten point lead going into the last election. And the political futures market Intrade gives the Democrats just a 56% chance of retaining the House, substantially less than before Brown's victory. But the Democrats are more likely to retain control of retain the Senate—Intrade gives them a 75% chance—where there is less turnover. While unemployment will almost certainly still be high in November, jobs will probably begin to come back later in the year, taking some pressure off incumbents. And while the Democrats have real problems, so do the Republicans. The tea party platform, which has energized their conservative base, doesn't have broad, national appeal to moderates. Nor does it give them much chance to appeal to the growing numbers of young people and minorities. Instead of running on a real platform of their own, they will likely try to run against Democrats in the fall. But there is only so far that can take them.

And, as Christopher Beam argues, the Democrats may yet get health care reform passed. They can pass the Senate bill as is, with the idea of amending it later. Or they can use the reconciliation process to pass the bill with a ordinary majority of 50 votes. They might even be able to attract Sen. Brown's support for some kind of health care reform. While Brown has something of a mandate to block the health care bill, the truth is that he is a liberal Republican from a liberal state. As Boris Schor suggests, Brown probably take Olympia Snowe's (R-ME) place as the most liberal Republican—and pivotal 60th vote—in the Senate. After all, simple obstructionism isn't likely to get Brown reelected in Massachusetts in 2012. And he would have much more influence if he struck a deal with the Democrats.

Some Democrats, of course, will think twice about passing health care reform after what happened in Massachusetts. But as Greg Sargent argues, the Democrats won't be better off if they don't manage to pass anything. As David Plouffe puts it, "If you run away from it, you're still going to get attacked." And although the current health care reform bill is unpopular now in the face of constant Republican attacks, once it passes and people begin to see how it benefits them, it's likely to become more popular. It may, in any case, be the Democrats' only chance. Brown's victory in Massachusetts isn't necessarily doom for the Democrats, but if they fall apart now, it will be.

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