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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, January 22, 2010

Democrats take a brutal beating


By Jules Witcover

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

The election of Republican Scott Brown to fill Ted Kennedy's Senate seat surprised many politicos.

LAUREN VICTORIA BURKE | Associated Press

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More than a mere dash of water in the face, the Republican capture of Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in Massachusetts was more like a two-by-four smash upside the head of the Democratic Party.

It's hard to conceive of any political event that could have been more shocking, considering the early efforts by Kennedy himself to guarantee his vote for President Obama's drive for sweeping health care reform.

Before his death last August, the state's senior senator personally pressured the Massachusetts Legislature to take steps he and practically everybody else thought would assure the preservation of that vote.

The solons on Beacon Hill acquiesced in allowing the Democratic governor, Deval Patrick, to appoint an interim replacement after the senator's death, so as not to deprive the party of one of its two votes in the Senate. With Sen. John Kerry already an assured vote for health reform, Kennedy's old and trusted aide Paul Kirk was appointed until the special election just held, in case the final health legislation came before the Senate in that interregnum.

The broad assumption was that Bay State voters would put another Democrat in the seat, either as a last gesture of esteem for Kennedy or simply through the overwhelming Democratic registration in one of the bluest of the blue states.

But at least two funny things happened on the way to the election. First, the Democrats nominated an extraordinarily inept candidate in state Attorney General Martha Coakley, whose campaign gaffes and an unimpressive presence left voters flat.

Second and more important, a public impatience, frustration and anger was mounting toward the Democrats running Washington, personified in Obama's soaring rhetoric unmatched by his accomplishments.

The president's early decision to seek a domestic version of Lyndon Johnson's guns and butter in the 1960s fighting a war while continuing his quest of a Great Society at home similarly overloaded the public's circuits.

Insisting on a massive health care reform while waging two wars and spending heavily to wrestle down a deep domestic economic crisis was proving too much for voters to swallow at once.

Early warnings of the public anger came in the developing Tea Party movement fueled by the Bush and Obama bank bailouts, coupled with outrageous executive bonuses to villains in the Wall Street collapse. Then there were the Republican gubernatorial victories in New Jersey and Virginia, both states won by Obama in 2008. But compared to the Republican Senate upset in Massachusetts, these were mere ripples ignored by Demo-crats still caught up in the Obama euphoria.

With the filibuster-proof Senate of 60 Democrats suddenly vanished, the Obama administration now faces an infinitely more challenging 2010, not only in trying to salvage some health care reform but also in preserving the Democratic majority in both houses of Congress in the fall midterm elections.

The administration must now decide whether to press on with Obama's version of guns and butter or trim its sails somewhat and pivot to the problem of much greater immediate concern on Main Street job creation. The obvious and bold answer is to launch a massive new public-works program to deal with long-neglected infrastructure repair across the country.

But considering the baying of the Tea Party protest and conservatives generally against more federal spending, what might have been more palatable to voters for such action a year ago at the start of a new administration would certainly buck up against heavy opposition now. Putting Americans back to work, however, would be the surest tonic for what ails the country now.

Meanwhile, Obama has sought to dampen down the public anger with a plan to tax major banks that received huge taxpayer bailouts and are now instituting or contemplating a second round of excessive executive bonuses. The move ought to draw support from complaining taxpayers, but so far it seems to have generated more wails from anti-tax conservatives.

Obama encountered a mountain of unanticipated problems in his first year as president, but they didn't deter him from pursuing his own agenda.

His second year by necessity and reality seems likely to dictate a narrowing of goals, especially in light of that Massachusetts two-by-four wakeup call.