Coakley’s Failure, Obama’s Lesson

Coakley's concession speech - Getty Images
Coakley's concession speech - Getty Images

Now the finger-pointing and ferocious spin-meistering begin. Why did Martha Coakley lose in her bid to replace Edward Kennedy as the senator from Massachusetts? Is this a referendum on the Obama administration and, particularly, on his health care reform proposal? Does this outcome bode major losses for Democrats in the 2010 congressional elections?


First things first. Martha Coakley was an abysmal candidate. Abysmal. From the outset, she positioned herself and ran as the “establishment” candidate. She easily overwhelmed the field of Democratic primary opponents as the state attorney general and the only contender with established statewide name recognition. This was an unfortunate circumstance since in this general election contest it seems highly unlikely that any of her onetime rivals for the Democratic nomination would have taken success in the big contest for granted in quite the way that she did.

Coakley’s failings as a candidate, however, run much deeper than waging a lethargic campaign. She was easily, and I would say rightly, cast by her opponent as a “limousine liberal,” out of touch with most middle-class and working-class citizens of Massachusetts. Let’s consider the superficial ways that this is true. Her campaign had a wan, lackluster quality. Just six days before the election, the Boston Globe wrote: “There is a subdued, almost dispassionate quality to her public appearances, which are surprisingly few. Her voice is not hoarse from late-night rallies. Even yesterday, the day after a hard hitting debate, she had no public campaign appearances in the state.” When pressed by reporters about the easy-going pace of her campaign just a week before the election, Coakley was quoted in the Boston Globe as retorting derisively: “As opposed to standing outside Fenway Park? In the cold? Shaking hands?’’ in an implicit reference to Scott Brown and his campaign ads. To quote Jon Stewart: “YES!” This is what politicians seeking votes do, Martha, especially in Massachusetts.

Matters only got worse when she went on local Boston radio and made the off-handed remark that Curt Schilling was “a Yankees fan.” As the Boston Red Sox pitcher viewed throughout New England as a hero for bringing the world championship of baseball back to Boston, this was a remarkable, arguably breath-taking gaffe. To quote Schilling: "But again I think it's just another sign of her aloofness, or just the fact that she's very out of touch, I think, with the people." Yeah, I would have to say so.

These are just symptoms, however, of the deeper problem. The entire campaign proceeded as if it did not matter that many people in the state, as is true around the country, are hurting. The unemployment rate remains solidly above 8 percent, despite a slight improvement. Many of those with jobs are worried about pay freezes, pay cuts or layoffs, and virtually everyone has seen the value of their primary assets, their homes, fall significantly. At the same time, it has become much harder to get loans, and credit card interest rates and fees have started to go through the roof.

In the midst of this hardship, most Americans see a government in Washington that, at least superficially, seems paralyzed and ineffective to stop the hurt. Voters are understandably anxious and dissatisfied. In this highly fraught context, Martha Coakley’s campaign offered primarily a smug sense of entitlement to govern.

Scott Brown, on the other hand, sensed discontent and played directly to it. He painted Coakley as a candidate of the state “democratic machine,” tied to lobbyists and a failed tax-and-spend liberal ideology. In the absence of any message or even the most remote flicker of passion from the Coakley campaign, Brown succeeded in capturing voter anger. He became the populist Republican. Sound familiar? It is a standard Republican playbook that a rookie Democratic candidate should have been prepared for. Coakley, however, was caught remarkably flat-footed primarily because she assumed her election was a cakewalk. Well, it was not and is not.


The moment is doubly galling. Not only is Kennedy’s seat lost to a Republican, but it happens at the very moment when his lifelong legislative ambition was on the line. There should be no mistake. This election has historic implications. At a minimum, we will all long be talking about the perils of “pulling a Coakley,” or smugly assuming that Democratic voters will slavishly follow a candidate no matter how distant and disengaged.

There will be speculation that Coakley lost because Massachusetts voters weren’t ready for a woman in the Senate. This is hard to believe with women in high-ranking posts around New England, such as Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Olympia Snowe in Maine. There will also be speculation that this was a white male revolt that should be read as at least a partial repudiation of both a black governor in Deval Patrick and a black president in Barack Obama. Again, this too seems highly unlikely since there is no basis for reading Coakley as particularly tied to minority communities or interests in any significant measure.


No, Coakley was the machine candidate. She ran that way. She failed that way.

Does Coakley’s loss signal deeper problems for Obama? Mostly yes, but partly no. In the short run, it greatly weakens the potential of passing his key domestic policy agenda item: health care reform. The bill can still be passed if the Democrats act quickly, however. And, in any event, 2012 is quite a ways down the road.


Does it signal that Obama has moved too far to the left and now needs to beat a hasty return to the center? Absolutely not. Coakley would almost certainly have lost by significant double digits had Obama not shown up to campaign for her and if she (and many others such as SEIU-COPE) had not run numerous powerful ads in the last 48 hours of the campaign playing up this connection.

Yes, in the waning hours of the campaign, when she was too far behind to recover, Coakley explained to voters that Scott Brown actually was a deeply conservative Republican out of step with Massachusetts. She pointed out his almost complete alignment with Bush-Cheney policies. She pointed out the complete blank check Brown is willing to extend to Wall Street. Finally, at the very final hour, her campaign showed signs of a pulse and a heartbeat but, as they say on TV medical dramas all the time when explaining the loss of a patient to family members, “too much damage had already been done. We couldn’t save her.”


The message for Obama is, in fact, very clear. Do not wait for Republicans to define you and mislead the public as to their commitments. Articulate a positive agenda. Paint the Republicans, and justly so, as purely obstructionist figures who stand in the way of responsible reform and economic recovery. Standing silent or even playing bipartisan, at this point, leaves you open to a “Coakley.”

Keep an ear to the ground and realize that many, many Americans are hurting. Most of those who aren’t hurting are deeply worried about their jobs, their livelihoods, their homes and the future. Give voice to that anxiety and the deepening sense of outrage people feel as they see bankers and Wall Street reaping out-sized profits and bonuses after getting massive tax-payer bailouts.


The plan to tax bank profits is one important step in the right direction. But it is insufficient in rhetoric and substance. A front-burner issue for Obama has to be appropriate and sensible financial reform on Wall Street. If Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and others on Obama’s economic team can’t pull together the program and the message, then he needs to promptly start putting together a new team. The growing anger in Middle America is palpable. Republicans should not be allowed to manipulate this anger, as Scott Brown did so effectively, in service of a failed right-wing political agenda.

What Democrats need to realize, however, is that the epic Coakley failure was not a “throw the bums out” vote. It is not a rejection of Democrats. It was a vote of disappointment and outrage at a posture of political entitlement and popular indifference. Massachusetts voters said no to a smug Democrat, not to Obama’s agenda for America. Reading this as a signal to move to the right would be to, well, commit a Coakley.


Lawrence D. Bobo is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University.