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.
There will be time to analyze the race ad nauseum, and perhaps more than a few Democratic heads will roll. Coupled with the loss of governorships in New Jersey and Virginia, this may smell like a major loss for the Democratic Party agenda heading into a tough year of legislation, and elections in the House and Senate. But the idea that Massachusetts means more than it should—for example, that it was a proxy fight for national Republican and national Democratic Parties, or that Brown will succeed in “killing” health care—gives everyone in Washington too much credit. This vote was not a lesson for the political strategists that sell candidates on the right and the left: It’s a lesson for the average American voter.
Brown coasted into office on an emerging anti-Beltway consensus and genuine populist distress at present economic conditions (despite the White House’s cheery pronouncements, unemployment remains at 10 percent—and at 16 percent for the black population). And he won back as much as 20 percent of the many independent voters who backed Obama in 2008. But despite being named for the Massachusetts rebels who challenged an empire, the “tea party” movement that backed Brown is still not a nationally coherent political entity. They lost a similar election in November in upstate New York. And at the close of last year, there were still zero Republican members of the House of Representatives from New England.
But the story of reduced turnout for elections that are countercyclical—congressional elections, local city council races or mayoral contests—is one that all Americans should pay attention to. On Nov. 4, 2008, we saw lines stretching from block to block to cast votes for the first black president. One year ago, we saw a similar throng. But the number of people on the national mall for the inauguration outstripped the number of votes cast in Massachusetts Tuesday. And while it may not be as inspiring to vote for a placid, workaday public servant such as Coakley, she was part of the same "movement" for which Obama had been given much credit.
The organizing and messaging failures that led to Coakley’s loss should be a wake-up call for not just Democrats, but all voters—and black voters in particular. Though there was no official exit polling, the Washington Post reported that Democratic strategists expressed “concern about low turnout numbers from African-American and Latino precincts.” Turnout in urban areas, particularly in Boston, lagged. A similar pattern of nonchalance among black voters sank Democratic candidates in the October and November elections in New York, New Jersey and Virginia—in the latter state, there was a full 40 percent drop from the support blacks showed for Obama in 2008. And in an era where the base appears fractured and dispirited, minority enthusiasm for Democrats could determine the fates of dozens of progressive candidates in this year's midterm elections.
An early sign that Democrats might flail without Obama at the head of the ticket came almost immediately after his historic presidential victory. On the backs of black voters turning out in astronomical numbers for Obama, upstart Democrat Jim Martin forced incumbent Sen. Saxby Chambliss into a runoff in Georgia. But just weeks after standing in lines to cast their votes for the Democratic Party, Martin's support eroded as black voters stayed home. Now Chambliss, too, is one of 41 Senate Republicans threatening Obama's presidential agenda.
While it’s not fair to lay blame on black voters (after all, many former Obama voters did turn up to vote—for Brown), it's silly to lay all of the blame on Coakley—as some in Democratic Party circles have begun to do. And though it’s usually fine to blame the unpredictable politics of the U.S. Senate, even that isn’t appropriate here: George W. Bush didn’t need 60 votes to do some of the greatest damage of his tenure as president. And had Sen. Arlen Specter not switched parties in April, or had Massachusetts Democrats not made the crass political decision to change the protocol for appointing a new senator, there might still be 60 votes.
The lesson of Massachusetts, however, is that the number 60 means less than the power of one. And that political bases must be motivated in order to keep political change moving forward. At least in this election, Republicans were able to do so, whereas the organizing groups such as Obama for America (now Organizing for America), Health Care for America Now and various labor unions that raised money and put feet on the ground for Obama in 2008 proved ineffectual and leaden in 2009—leaving lawmakers to slog through an August full of town hall recriminations rather than selling the health care bill on which Obama had staked his first year of political capital.
In a speech marking the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Obama reverenced the civil rights revolution that culminated in his election in 2008—but was crystal-clear about the reasons for that movement's success:
They understood that as much as our government and our political parties had betrayed them in the past — as much as our nation itself had betrayed its own ideals — government, if aligned with the interests of its people, can be — and must be — a force for good. So they stayed on the Justice Department. They went into the courts. They pressured Congress, they pressured their President. They didn't give up on this country. They didn't give up on government. They didn't somehow say government was the problem; they said, we're going to change government, we're going to make it better. Imperfect as it was, they continued to believe in the promise of democracy; in America's constant ability to remake itself, to perfect this union.
For black and indeed all Americans feeling disaffected by the pace of change promised on the day of Obama's inauguration, this is an important message to heed: Elections matter. Participation counts. The country will be majority minority by 2050. But what’s the point of having an emerging Democratic majority if we don’t use it?
Dayo Olopade is Washington reporter for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.