And here comes the firing squad. Anthony Weiner went on MSNBC to suggest that Democrats drop health care and pivot to jobs. Evan Bayh is blaming "the furthest left elements of the Democratic Party," who have gotten exactly nothing they wanted in recent months. Barney Frank is hoping that some Senate Republicans will revise the health-care bill to their liking, resulting in a bill that will be far less to the House's liking than the current Senate bill. And so on.
There will be more to say on all this tomorrow. For now, it's worth observing that a Democratic Party that would abandon their central initiative this quickly isn't a Democratic Party that deserves to hold power. If they don't believe in the importance of their policies, why should anyone who's skeptical change their mind? If they're not interested in actually passing their agenda, why should voters who agree with Democrats on the issues work to elect them? A commitment provisional on Ted Kennedy not dying and Martha Coakley not running a terrible campaign is not much of a commitment at all.
Speaking of Kennedy, he anticipated this reaction back in 1980. On the eve of his defeat to Jimmy Carter, and Carter's defeat to Ronald Reagan, he warned his supporters against letting electoral setbacks dampen their commitment to their cause. "If the Democrats run for cover, if we become pale carbon copies of the opposition, we will lose -- and deserve to lose," he said. "The last thing this country needs is two Republican parties."
Pity he's not around to remind Democrats of that today.
The graph is from Joshua Tucker, and it's worth thinking about a bit. The reaction to the Massachusetts special election is obviously about the grim prospects of 2010 rather than the loss of one seat. The psychological impact on congressional Democrats of losing Ted Kennedy's seat is akin to the impact Lehman's fall had on Wall Street -- it means nobody is safe.
But this is, still, just the loss of one seat, in one race. Martha Coakley's campaign was a carousel of gaffes and lethargy. Scott Brown ran a skilled effort presenting himself as a handsome independent. The difference between the two candidates was about 100,000 votes. That's not to deny the obvious role that dissatisfaction with Obama, the Democrats, and the state of the country played in this race. But I don't know anyone -- literally, anyone -- who doesn't believe a better Democratic candidate could have held the seat in Massachusetts.
For that reason, perceptions really are everything here. And Democrats seem determined to lose control of them. If Democrats had pointed to something like the graph above, lamented losing such an important seat due to the failures of their woeful candidate, but shrugged it off and promised to take it back in 2010, this would still be a big story, but the media would be hard-pressed to make it a big deal. If Democrats had reacted to Brown's victory by angrily attacking the Republicans for holding up and continually distorting the party's central legislative initiative, it would have been trivially easy to explain the Massachusetts special election in terms of how important it is for Democrats to pass health-care reform, rather than how important it is for them to wait. And if Democrats were still en route to passing health care next week, the Brown story would seen be on its way out of the headlines.
Instead, Democrats, with 59 votes in the Senate and a 40-vote margin in the House, seem ready to treat Brown's election as if they just lost the majority. That's in their head, of course, rather than in last night's election results. But if they don't get out of that mindset, then it's pretty sure to be in November's election results.