Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem "Concord Hymn," which is inscribed on the Minuteman statue at the North Bridge, begins with four lines that every schoolchild learned by heart: "By the rude bridge that arched the flood/Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled/Here once the embattled farmers stood/And fired the shot heard round the world." Last night, it wasn’t April, and though they were hardly embattled, the citizens of Massachusetts fired a shot heard round Washington. The seat held by the late Senator Ted Kennedy since 1962, and before that by his brother Jack since 1952, that seat was won last night by Republican Scott Brown.
It is beyond true that Brown defeated one of the worst candidates in the history of modern politics. You don’t win elections in Massachusetts by insulting Catholics and Red Sox fans. Martha Coakley, a name that political writers everywhere know they will never have to write again, can be forgiven personally for not recognizing the name "Curt Schilling" when a radio interviewer asked her about the great Red Sox pitcher. Politically, shame, eternal shame, damnation and hell-fire on any candidate for any public office in Red Sox Nation who makes such a gaffe!
The insult to Catholics was more telling because it tells a tale that I wonder if the White House has the ears to hear. Coakley, who won the Democratic Party primary by outrunning her opponents to the left, the far left, was asked about conscience protections for Catholic health care workers and she suggested that if they were uncomfortable performing immoral acts, they should not work in an emergency room. This from an Attorney General! No nuance. No appreciation for the fact that the issue of conscience protection is a complicated one, that patients as well as workers have rights, but that neither set of rights should be dismissed so cavalierly. I fear, however, that the President and his advisors share Coakley’s sensibility that the issue of conscience protection is "a Catholic thing," a concern of pro-lifers whom most elite Democrat advisors abhor. The issue of conscience protection is not simply a "Catholic thing." It is a liberal thing, at least if my memory of John Locke and Roger Williams is accurate. And only the most rabidly anti-religious zealot would think it is only a "Catholic thing." Democrats need to learn from Ms. Coakley’s example: If you insult Catholics and our faith, we are not going to vote for you.
What does this mean for health care? The White House may try to get the House to pass the Senate version and move on to another topic, hoping that times will be better by November and that with the return of good times, all will be forgiven. House Democrats, all of whom are standing for re-election, would be the wager in that bet and politicians tend to be risk averse. To ram through health care now would be made to look like the Democrats were thumbing their nose at the voters. GOP operatives said that they first saw the polls in Massachusetts shift when the horse-trading for votes in the Senate got out of hand. Of course, if the Dems do ram through the bill quickly, GOP fears that the sky would fall immediately would be exposed as little more than fear-mongering.
The only other option is to pull the bill and come back with a new proposal that Democrats can run on in November. My advice: Keep it simple. The law by which Canada enacted its health insurance plan was eight pages long. I will give the White House twenty, but not twenty-one. People don’t like 2,000 page bills. They recognize them as an affront to notions of self-government. Yes, yes, health care is complicated but, for example, how about this one sentence for a new public option: Every citizen of the United States may, if he chooses, purchase the same health insurance as his congressperson. This has the further advantage of avoiding any trouble over abortion coverage: The federal employee health benefit plan that members of Congress have does not include abortion coverage. And, why not this: Every citizen, upon reaching the age of 55, can buy-in to Medicaid. Another one-sentence item: No citizen shall be denied coverage because of a pre-existing condition. I am sure the section of the current bill on preventive care may need to be lengthier than my twenty page limit, so package it as a separate piece of legislation and pass it. Who is against preventive care? And as for financing, the more populist the solution the better on the current climate.
The Democrats needed a strategy to hold on to Independent voters in Massachusetts (and some blue collar Democrats as well, as Matt Malone points out this morning) and there was no shortage of smart campaign operatives in Boston, but no one came up with a winning strategy. The Democrats need one for November and here is one: Turn the election into a referendum on a new, shorter, less convoluted health care bill. Make the GOP come out with their own plan and let voters compare the two.
One of the problems with President Obama’s campaign last year was that it was long on content-less nouns like "change" and "hope" and many voters projected on to the candidate the particular variety of change and hope they wanted. It is time to put some content into the midterms. Like yesterday’s race in Massachusetts, no matter the individual qualities of the candidates, the results will be interpreted as having national significance. Might as well give them that significance up front. The worst that can happen for the White House is that the Dems lose control of Congress, but that might happen anyway if they keep going on their current trajectory. They lost Massachusetts yesterday and the other 49 noticed.
Michael Sean Winters