It Wasn’t About Voting for Obama

A year later and down a Senate seat, Democrats should wake up to what it takes to make change.


The appropriate gift for a first anniversary is paper. And on ballots cast in a Massachusetts special election to fill the late Sen. Ted Kennedy's seat, voters in Massachusetts sent President Barack Obama an unwelcome present.

The recriminations for Massachusetts attorney general Martha Coakley’s stunning 52-47 percent loss began before the final votes had even been cast. Finger-pointing about losing what, for 60 years, had been a true-blue Democratic seat to the insurgent Republican Scott Brown has pitted Democratic Party officials against the White House political shop against Coakley herself. Exactly one year after Obama's triumphant inauguration, and six months after Democrats jubilantly established their super-majority in the Senate, expectations for progressive change have come crashing back to earth.


Democratic operatives shipped up to Massachusetts to manage Coakley’s get-out-the-vote effort say they were “stunned” by the number of voters who waved them away, declaring their intentions to vote for Brown. In working-class Quincy, which should have been Coakley country, a pair of working-class Democrats told reporters, “I always vote Democratic … Brown doesn’t have a chance. The Democrats are gonna take care of it.”


Well, they didn’t. Now first and foremost on the minds of the defeated: Health care reform. Brown’s five-point victory has scrambled the conversation around Obama’s signature legislative priority, passed through the House with a slim majority in November and through the Senate with 60 Democratic votes shortly before Christmas 2009. The ink is far from dry on a final bill—and with only 59 votes, some Democrats are anticipating even greater negotiating headaches ahead.


Indeed, Brown's victory speech cast himself as a spoiler for the campaign to overhaul health care in America. “The independent majority has delivered a great victory,” he said. “People do not want the trillion-dollar health-care plan that is being forced on the American people.” Obama himself was “surprised and frustrated,” according to his press secretary, about losing a state he had carried over Sen. John McCain by 26 points. But this nasty anniversary present demonstrates what should have been clear from the day that Obama took the oath of office—voting for a charismatic black candidate was never enough.