Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley was a lousy candidate who ran a lousy campaign and lost her bid for Ted Kennedy's Senate seat as a result. Instead of preserving 60 filibuster-proof votes for Democrats, she handed the Massachusetts senatorial seat to Republican Scott Brown on a silver platter. And, as they are entitled to, Republicans are celebrating, dubbing the extremely conservative Mr. Brown as "41" and suggesting that his election signals a Republican resurgence.
Too many will see this as the waning of President Obama's influence, but that's not necessarily the case. Martha Coakley ran a lousy campaign. While Scott Brown was retail politics, she was wholesale. While he was "the people's candidate", out shaking hands and exuding personality, she was uptight and uncommunicative. It probably ought not matter, but in sports-obsessed Boston she described a Red Socks pitcher as a Yankee fan, exhibiting not only ignorance of sports, but also of her base. She disdained hand shaking and was good for a series of bloopers, which she later described as "jokes". She is so out of touch that in a post-election interview, she said she would not have done anything differently!
What could President Obama do with that? He did the best he could. He showed up and campaigned for Coakley. He attempted to marshall votes for her. But if anybody ought to be blamed for the Scott Brown victory, it might be Tim Kaine, who leads the Democratic National Committee. He, it seems, should have had troops on the ground early enough to understand that Coakley was in trouble. And he, it seems, should have made sure the candidate got media training, among other things. After gubernatorial losses in Virginia and New Jersey (again with lousy candidates who might have been rescued), Kaine is an example of someone whose learning curve is flat. If Republicans are enjoying a resurgence that started with November losses, why wasn't Kaine on top of it?
To be sure, the Scott Brown victory is a setback for the White House. But it is clear that health care was in trouble anyway. The bill, a decent bill, was full of uncomfortable compromises. It was not a bill that inspired passion. Indeed, the most important thing about the bill is that it is an important first step toward true health care reform, and a benefit to the more than 40 million Americans who do not have health insurance.
There is passion on the right to kill health care reform, but where is the passion on the left? Where is the passion on the left for anything, actually, but carping and whining? Were there passion on the left, Martha Coakley, imperfect as she was, would not have lost. There were enough stay-home voters in Massachusetts to have taken her over the top, but they simply didn't care to.
Why didn't they care? Lots of voters feel that they have been played by the great expectations they had just a year ago, when President Obama was inaugurated. Then, he talked in grand and glowing terms about the reform that was necessary to make our government move more smoothly and to pay attention to working people. Now, there are fewer people working - the unemployment rate has risen, in a year, from 7.6 percent to 10 percent, and that's just the official rate. Not only are fewer people working, but also wages aren't rising. And, the bankers that were bailed out are getting multi-million dollar bonuses. How is that for washing our faces in it!
Stimulus funds are winding their way through the system, but more slowly than anyone likes. The unemployment situation is high on most minds, but not high enough on the agenda of the White House. We need liberals to feel some of the same passion that the tea party posse feels, liberals who exude energy and excitement. Instead, there is something disturbingly blah about the way many liberals approach public policy.
This is the context in which Martha Coakley, lousy candidate for the United States Senate, chose to run. She didn't ooze excitement, she ran a poor campaign, and she did it at a time when the Democratic blahs have left once-excited voters staying home. Republican resurgence? Obama's waning influence? Or time, simply, to return Democratic passion to politics.
Dr. Julianne Malveaux is a noted economist and president of Bennett College for Women.