What Democrats Should Learn from Massachussetts

U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-MA) (top) greets Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate Martha Coakley after she conceded defeat to Republican Senator-elect Scott Brown in the special election to fill the Senate seat of the late Edward Kennedy in Boston, Massachusetts January 19, 2010. (REUTERS)

U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-MA) greets Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate Martha Coakley after she conceded defeat to Republican Senator-elect Scott Brown in the special election to fill the Senate seat of the late Edward Kennedy in Boston, Massachusetts January 19, 2010. (REUTERS)

Neil Newhouse, who served served as the pollster for the Brown for Senate campaign and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (and was indirectly my source* last night) has written a public memo to National Democratic Leaders with the subject line WHAT MASSACHUSETTS MEANS FOR YOU.  While it’s mostly tongue-in-cheek, he makes some salient points.   Among them:

Stop blaming Martha Coakley.

It’s not all her fault. It’s the policies she supported that were more to blame. She won the Democratic primary trouncing her opponents and was clearly the best candidate the party had to offer in the state. She’d won statewide in convincing fashion. She was a proven quantity. And, yet this race wasn’t even close.

After watching Creigh Deeds, Jon Corzine and now Martha Coakley go down in flames, do you really think that the one thing they had in common was that they were below average candidates running sub-par campaigns?

It’s true that Coakley and Deeds were poor general election candidates and that Corzine was tainted for a variety of reasons. But there is a trend here.

Neil notes, too, that President Obama’s visits did very little to rally support. In the case of yesterday’s contest, “While it DID energize segments of the Democratic base, Obama’s visit also helped us reinforce our support among Independent voters and ratchet up their intensity about the election.”

His closer is sardonic but correct:

Given the Republican Party’s problems from 2005-2008, I personally want to thank you for getting the GOP back into the game by overreaching and overspending.

After spending four years watching Republican campaigns face the same problems — blaming candidates instead of the challenging political environment and going negative early to define the Democratic candidate — I understand those reflexive responses.

Given the opportunities the GOP has in November, please continue to blame your candidates and press forward with a reckless policy agenda.

In sum, my advice comes down to: no need to change a thing — full speed ahead.

As he notes, this is exactly what the Republicans did in 2006 and 2008.  Because candidates are chosen by the hard-core enthusiasts of the two parties, the natural instinct when losing is to conclude that the problem is that the candidates were either unable to articulate the party platform or wasn’t a true believer.  While that’s sometimes true, it’s usually just the opposite of the reality on the ground.   Good products tend to sell themselves and great salesmen can only peddle bad products so long.

The Republicans incorrectly interpreted their narrow wins in 2004 as a mandate for unpopular parts of their domestic agenda rather than a lack of confidence in John Kerry and company to run foreign policy.  Similarly, the Democrats incorrectly interpreted their big win in 2008 as an endorsement of Nancy Pelosi’s agenda rather than a repudiation of eight years of Bush-Cheney and a backlash over a crumbling economy.

At some point, they’ll learn their lesson.   They always do.  But it usually takes a series of drubbings, not just some canaries in the coal mine, to make that happen.

_______________
*My wife, who’s chief operating officer of the company Newhouse founded along with Bill McInturff and Glen Bolger, passed along the info via email at 5:04 Eastern yesterday. I had previously been unaware of POS’ involvement in the campaign.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2010, Politics 101, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. McGehee says:

    No, there’s nothing for them to learn from this. Ssshhhhh!

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    It’s true that Coakley and Deeds were poor general election candidates and that Corzine was tainted for a variety of reasons. But there is a trend here.

    Yes, there is. They took the election for granted.

  3. superdestroyer says:

    The message all politicians should take away is you have to do what you campaigned on during a recession. During a boom period like the late 1980’s voters were willing to overlook broken promises, mismanagement, and failures because the boom times make the problems look less severe.

    Now that the U.S. is in a recession, politicians cannot keep wildly spending, cannot keep passing out goodies to their friends, and cannot avoid thinking about the long term.

    I doubt if the Republicans are going to manage to learn any of the long term lessons about spending, governance, or leadership. The Republicans are going to become convinced again that election gimmicks are more important than leadership.

  4. Steve Plunk says:

    This election was clearly a referendum on Obama Care and the Washington leadership pushing it. The message received should be the American people don’t want it.

    I’m curious what part of the Republican domestic agenda was unpopular during Bush’s second term? The Republicans lost later because of a mobilized anti war faction and some slick operators in the Dem camp making promises they wouldn’t keep. Throw in some out an out lies about Bush/Cheney and the electorate thought they would try something new.

  5. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Pay close attention to what Steve wrote. I appears as though he was paying attention, not listening to the spin and then buying in. Much of what was called evil under Bush is accepted when done by Obama. Why? Double standard by our free press? They are free. Free of standards, free of ethics and free of morals.

  6. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Mant to say It appears. Typo, sorry.

  7. Brian Knapp says:

    This election was clearly a referendum on Obama Care and the Washington leadership pushing it. The message received should be the American people don’t want it.

    I hope that the people of Massachusetts don’t speak for all Americans.

  8. Steven Donegal says:

    Here’s the lesson from Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts, which is primarily a carryover from 2008:

    It sucks to be an incumbent (or from the incumbent party) when things aren’t going well. I’m sure the Rs will continue to make political gains, but once they get back in power, they will still have no answers for anything except cut taxes and bomb Iran. That won’t play for long.

  9. Thomas says:

    You couldn’t be more incorrect in your assessment of the Repubs and 2008. Conservatives shunned McCain. He only got an uptick in the polls due to Palin, but the GOP grassroots do not like RINOs and McCain’s liberal policies (amnesty, global warming) were his downfall. Nor do the grassroots like seeing liberals like Dede Scozzafava and Charlie Crist being handpicked by their party elite. In the case of the GOP, the candidates were the problem. In the case of the Dems, liberals were the problem (not coincidentally, that’s exactly what the GOP candidates mentioned above are.)

  10. Thomas says:

    Also, when you include the Washington Posts’s recent polls showing 58% want more limited government and that most Americans identify themselves as conservatives, it’s not surprising to see liberals defeated (Coakley, Corzine, etc.) or not supported (Scozzafava, McCain, etc.)

  11. Steve Verdon says:

    Megan’s Law of Politics: the winners are smug and arrogant, the losers insane.

    Now it is the Democrats turn to be smug and arrogant, while the Republicans are insane (Palin anyone?). This will lead to the Democrats over-reaching whatever mandate they think they have (and it is probably smaller than they think–being pissed at Bush doesn’t mean they love you with all their hearts) and bring about a defeat.

    Hopefully it will be marginal defeat for the Democrats (lose some seats in both houses, maybe take one house) and not give the Republicans an opportunity to over reach…well at least too much.

    Thankfully, Obama doesn’t seem to see this as an indication his agenda is part of the problem.

  12. Eric Florack says:

    Yes, there is. They took the election for granted.

    Well, precisely, but then again they’ve been doing that for years. and, they’ve been running bad campaigns for just as long. Decades, in fact. What’s different this time, as the current crop of democrats who have succeeded in unifying the country… against them.

    None of the commentary that’s coming from the left side of the sphere this morning, even comes close to mentioning the electorate and it’s a dissatisfaction with the neo socialist agenda. they don’t dare mention it because it might be logically considered a cause of what happened in Massachusetts last night. That, in turn, would cause democrats to move away from that agenda.

    I see, for example, that Obama still hasn’t learned that lesson; he’s already put moves into place to nationalize the student loan industry. Shades of Hugo Chavez. And I’ll bet he doesn’t understand why his approval numbers are dropping like a prom dress.

  13. Tano says:

    Seems pretty clear that Mr. Newhouse is doing the obvious – trying to impart a certain spin to the results so as to claim as grand a mandate as possible.

    But the facts seem to argue for a different conclusion. If the primary driver of this campaign were opposition to Obamacare, to the Obama administration, then Coakely should have faced problems throughout her short campaign. It should have been an uphill struggle in a hostile environment. But it wasn’t. She was way ahead one month ago. Nothing much changed for Obama or Obamacare in the past month. But Coakley lost about 30 points of support in that month. Obamacare did not lose 30 points of support – nor did Obama. Only Coakley.

    And while Brown’s opposition to Obamacare was a major issue, it should be kept in mind that, thanks to Brown and Mitt Romney, MA already has a universal health care scheme very similar to Obamacare. So for Brown to oppose Obamacare, and for MA voters to join him in that, comes with little cost – MA voters get something like Obamacare either way. I dont see how this result can be seen as a blow to the idea of universal health care, given Brown’s position on RomneyCare.

  14. McGehee says:

    f the primary driver of this campaign were opposition to Obamacare, to the Obama administration, then Coakely should have faced problems throughout her short campaign.

    You mean, instead of only after it became apparent there was an alternative to yet another Democrat?

    Because really, that’s pretty much when she began to fall apart.

  15. Benedict says:

    Yes, there is. They took the election for granted.

    That certainly fits the emerging narrative for Coakley, and I don’t know enough about the Deeds race to say (my impression is that Deeds was a surprise winner of the VA primary and started out with a significant disadvantage in both funding and name recognition, but I could be wrong).

    Corzine, however, spent between $25 and $30 million of his own money on the election, seemed to campaign hard, and did not appear to take anything for granted.

  16. An Interested Party says:

    I’m curious what part of the Republican domestic agenda was unpopular during Bush’s second term?

    Umm, how about privatizing Social Security?

    Throw in some out an out lies about Bush/Cheney and the electorate thought they would try something new.

    Oh, do tell what some of those alleged lies were…

    I see, for example, that Obama still hasn’t learned that lesson; he’s already put moves into place to nationalize the student loan industry.

    Yes, of course, because it’s just so much better for college students to have private for profit middle men corporations charge them ridiculous interest on their government-backed student loans…ahh, the free market…really, Hugo Chavez? Are you looking to get the Triumph Parody Award?

    Daniel Larson makes some very good points about this particular election…

    Having just spent the last several months insisting that Obama overreached and has badly misread the public mood, Republicans seem to be in an awful hurry to attach far too much significance to a remarkable, but so far unique, special election.

    This year the GOP has the advantage that it is the out-party and is bound to make some gains, but my guess is that they continue to read too much into the outcomes of special elections in Massachusetts and will end up gaining far fewer seats than they expect.

  17. Steve Plunk says:

    Brian, The people of Massachusetts don’t speak for all Americans but if Obamacare is repudiated there it’s obvious Americans of all political persuasions don’t want it. The plan of letting rude, obnoxious people guide a government heavy health care reform through congress in a rude, obnoxious, and secretive manner has failed. I’ll say it again, small reforms in small bills. Small steps that can be judged for success rather than a giant irreversible piece of legislation.

    AIP, I don’t recall Bush ever doing any more than talking about privatizing a portion of Social Security and that would be voluntary. A long way from burning the bridge behind health care reform and getting the IRS to force compliance. A huge difference.

    The American people now have evidence of the Democratic agenda being too far left and bad for the country. It’s not just this loss but other losses and public opinion polls that prove it.

  18. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Interested party. What part earn your own way is it that escapes you. Why should my dollars pay for your kid to go to college? What is wrong with working your way through school? Some of you leftist think there is no entitlement that should not be established. How about the entitlement to earn your own way? If you you think middlemen in the private sector are bad, what makes them in the government good? If you want government to take care of you, move to a place where they do that. I will fight to the death to maintain the freedom hard won here. I am sick to death of hearing I owe someone something. If you try to take mine, bring a lunch and make sure your insurance, if you have any, is paid up.

  19. Steven Donegal says:

    Very good, Zelsdork. You tell ’em.

  20. tom p says:

    Interested party. What part earn your own way is it that escapes you

    .

    Z: Welcome aboard! From your statement above I feel it safe to assume you are in favor of a %100 inheritance tax? I mean, why should some silver spooned brat have it all given to them? Let them earn their way like the rest of us do!

    Why should my dollars pay for your kid to go to college?

    They shouldn’t! I think you should spend it on booze and drugs like my parents did! Let us take it a step further: Your dollars should not pay for your kids to go to college either! Let ’em earn it! (good enuf for me? good enuf for them!)

    What is wrong with working your way through school?

    NOTHING! Your children are first in line to work their way thru school… Right? Alongside mine? Right?

    Some of you leftist think there is no entitlement that should not be established. How about the entitlement to earn your own way?

    RIGHT ON!!! Go Z! Go Z! Go Z!

    Children will earn their own way from now on! And you are the first to let them adrift to sink or swim on their own… Right???

    If you you think middlemen in the private sector are bad, what makes them in the government good?

    Z…. You really lost me here, I mean I thought we were on the same page? The Gov’t middlemen are there no matter what… the only difference is, are they ensuring a bankers profit or a students education?

    If you want government to take care of you, move to a place where they do that.

    Hmmmmmmm…. I thought we were talking about a level playing field.

    I will fight to the death to maintain the freedom hard won here.

    You mean, suck up to the ascendent corporate bureaucracy of the day?

    I am sick to death of hearing I owe someone something.

    Z: You don’t owe me shit. Take it to the grave with you…. Oh, wait a minute, then you’re dead, and it is no longer yours, and you no longer care… (after all, you are dead.)

    If you try to take mine, bring a lunch and make sure your insurance, if you have any, is paid up.

    This sounds like every other cheap tuff-guy bullshit I have ever heard from every other NRA suburbanite with a gun I know… Do me a favor:

    Grow up.

  21. John Burgess says:

    tom p: How about finding another blog to troll? Your ‘arguments’ are at best tangential, but mostly non sequiturs.

  22. mpw280 says:

    Hey tom p, give all your money to charity, just don’t tell me that I should do the same. If you think that I owe someone something for working my ass off and actually getting ahead, go get in line at the obama clinic. I don’t owe you shit, nor your kids. As to paying for my kids education that is my RIGHT, its my money I can do with it as I please. Buy a yacht, super car, airplane, second home, third home, place in a foreign country, who cares its my money to dispose of as I please. You should have no say in how the money I worked for should be disposed of either before or after I take a long dirt nap. If you don’t like the monetary state you are in, bust YOUR ass to get out of it, not someone elses. If you don’t like my idea call me and I will invite someone to share your home, which is what you want us to do, allow someone to take which is ours and give it to someone else. mpw

  23. Have a nice G.A. says:

    Yes, there is. They took the election for granted.

    Obama’s?:)

    America has woken up, thats what they have taken for granted.

  24. I heard on TV (Matthews!) that Massachusetts (I love spell checkers!) now has more independent voters than Democrats. That both surprised and pleased me. As you may recall, I think all states need more independents, as a way to break two party dysfunction and polarization.

    I gather James is still a two-party booster.

  25. Brett says:

    Brian, The people of Massachusetts don’t speak for all Americans but if Obamacare is repudiated there it’s obvious Americans of all political persuasions don’t want it.

    Or it means that the Massachusetts folks already have a health care system that would be remarkably similar to the national-level system that would be put in place, and so it’s easier for them to see the downsides. A system that Brown supported, by the way, and is implicitly promising to protect.

    Think of how the elderly, existing beneficiaries of a highly generous government health insurance program, are among the most skeptical of health care reform. Perhaps someone should tell them that America is a “center-right” nation and that they should give it up and buy private insurance. Somehow I don’t think it will be Republicans.

    You should have no say in how the money I worked for should be disposed of either before or after I take a long dirt nap.

    Oh? You seem to have forgotten that it is also my money that pays for the enforcement of your property rights, my money that pays for the police who show up to protect you if some joker laughs in your face when you ask him to not steal your stuff, my money that pays for the court system. You’re already making demands on my money, so while I’m at it, I’m also going to push for other measures to promote the public welfare. If you don’t like that, then you’re welcome to go somewhere where you’re not making demands for protection on mine and others’ dime – I hear Somalia has a perennial shortage of skilled personnel.