Friday, January 15, 2010

It's the message, stupid

You know things are bad when a candidate's allies start talking about how the candidate lost the election even before the election takes place. And that is what is happening in Massachusetts as Democratic strategists strive to show that the problems she's facing are due to her own mistakes not the unpopularity of the Democratic agenda in Washington.
“To be silent in terms of your own personal and public appearances and then dark on television is just breathtakingly ignorant,” one Democratic campaign strategist told the Herald yesterday. “Republicans are going to claim that the fact that Coakley is having a problem winning in Massachusetts is related to people’s concerns about Obamacare - when the reality is Coakley’s struggle should be blamed on her and an incompetent campaign strategy.”

The strategist is among a chorus of party operatives who are red-hot mad that Coakley’s campaign has drained Democratic resources in the Bay State and beyond - a misfortune that traces back to Dec. 23, when Coakley began her six-day streak off the campaign trail.
Byron York has some more about how Democrats, seeing the bottom fall out of their internal polling are seeking to separate Obama from Coakley.
The same sort of thinking is emerging in Massachusetts. "This is a Creigh Deeds situation," the Democrat says. "I don't think it says that the Obama agenda is a problem. I think it says, 1) that she's a terrible candidate, 2) that she ran a terrible campaign, 3) that the climate is difficult but she should have been able to overcome it, and 4) that Democrats beware -- you better run good campaigns, or you're going to lose."

With the election still four days away, Democrats are still hoping that "something could happen" to change the dynamics of the race. But until that thing happens, the situation as it exists today explains Barack Obama's decision not to travel to Massachusetts to campaign for Coakley. "If the White House thinks she can win, Obama will be there," the Democrat says. "If they don't think she can win, he won't be there." For national Democrats, the task is now to insulate Obama against any suggestion that a Coakley defeat would be a judgment on the president's agenda and performance in office.
If they keep telling themselves that there only problem has been awful candidates, they'll keep having awful candidates who ignore the message that the American people are trying to send Washington.

She sure is an awful candidate, but that didn't stop her from winning the Democratic primary. Scott Brown would never have been able to be in a position where respected analysts like Charlie Cook and Stu Rothenberg are now rating the race a toss up if his message didn't resonate with the Massachusetts electorate. And his message has been basically that it is time to slow down or stop the Democratic agenda. He hasn't come close to upsetting the Democrats in the bluest of blue states based on his centerfold picture 22 years ago. She's a terrible candidate, but it's the message, stupid.

For example check out the newest Suffolk poll from Massachusetts which now has Brown up by 4 points among likely voters.
The survey asked whether the recession was over in Massachusetts, and 90 percent of voters said no. The most important issue facing our next U.S. senator is the economy/jobs, according to 44 percent of voters polled; 38 percent said health care.

The survey also found:

* 54 percent support Massachusetts’ near-universal health care law
* 62 percent believe Massachusetts cannot afford its health care system
* 51 percent oppose the proposed national health care plan
* 61 percent believe the federal government cannot afford the proposed national health care plan
* 48 percent approve of President Obama’s performance; 43 percent disapprove
* 56 percent disapprove of Gov. Deval Patrick’s performance; 35 percent approve
* 55 percent think Massachusetts is on the wrong track
Massachusetts voters don't seem to like the policies the Democrats are trying to cram through Congress. That's why Martha Coakley is having such a tough time. It helps Brown that she's a terribly unappealing candidate, but she was apparently the best the Democrats had. If she had a more attractive message, she would be doing better, but Brown's message is what is resonating. And that ought to strike fear into every Democratic candidate this year. They are going to have run under the same message that she's been running over and they might not have an electorate so slanted towards the Democrats as Massachusetts does. They should pay attention to what these Bay State voters are telling them.

Peggy Noonan
is trying to tell the Democrats this.
All politicians are canaries in coal mines, they're always the first to feel the political atmosphere. It was significant when the Democrats lost the governorships of Virginia and New Jersey two months ago. It is significant that a handful of House and Senate Democrats have decided not to run this year. And it is deeply significant that a Republican state senator in Massachusetts, Scott Brown, may topple the Democratic nominee to fill Ted Kennedy's former seat, Martha Coakley. In a way, the Republicans have already won—it's a real race, it's close, and in "Don't blame me, I'm from Massachusetts"!

Mr. Brown's whole story right now is not about disconnect but connect. Massachusetts has an 8.8% unemployment rate, and graduates of the commonwealth's great universities can't find work. An old Boston Republican hand said of the race, "It's 100% percent about policies—health care, taxes, what's the plan on the economy?" Mr. Brown charges that Ms. Coakley's support for cap and trade and health care will amount to $2 trillion in taxes in the next five years.

Ms. Coakley has the advantage—Massachusetts is the heart of blue-state America—but in a way her advantage is her curse. Because she is the candidate of a party that for 40 years has been used to winning, reigning and winning again, she looks like the same old same old, a standard old-line liberal, the frontwoman for a machine, a yes woman for the Obama-Pelosi era.

It is interesting that Ms. Coakley, too, has been told by pundits the past week that her problem is that she's not emotional enough. She should show passion and fire! She should cry like Hillary!

This comes not only from pundits but normal people, and if you contemplate the meaning it is, weirdly: You're not good enough at manipulating us! We want more theatrics!
That's not what people want. If she's passionate about policies that people are rejecting, then her simulated passion won't be of any help to her.

But the Democrats are fooling themselves if they ignore the anger that Americans are feeling over the Democratic agenda. As Charles Krauthammer writes today,
The health-care drive is the most important reason Obama has sunk to 46 percent. But this reflects something larger. In the end, what matters is not the persona but the agenda. In a country where politics is fought between the 40-yard lines, Obama has insisted on pushing hard for the 30. And the American people -- disorganized and unled but nonetheless agitated and mobilized -- have put up a stout defense somewhere just left of midfield.

Ideas matter. Legislative proposals matter. Slick campaigns and dazzling speeches can work for a while, but the magic always wears off.

It's inherently risky for any charismatic politician to legislate. To act is to choose and to choose is to disappoint the expectations of many who had poured their hopes into the empty vessel -- of which candidate Obama was the greatest representative in recent American political history.

Obama did not just act, however. He acted ideologically. To his credit, Obama didn't just come to Washington to be someone. Like Reagan, he came to Washington to do something -- to introduce a powerful social democratic stream into America's deeply and historically individualist polity.

Perhaps Obama thought he'd been sent to the White House to do just that. If so, he vastly over-read his mandate. His own electoral success -- twinned with handy victories and large majorities in both houses of Congress -- was a referendum on his predecessor's governance and the post-Lehman financial collapse. It was not an endorsement of European-style social democracy.

Hence the resistance. Hence the fall. The system may not always work, but it does take its revenge.
Obama won't fall as far as Coakley, but he should learn that it's his message and policies that people are rejecting.