BOSTON—When Martha Coakley conceded the election to Scott Brown Tuesday night, a cheer went up at Brown's rally at the Park Plaza Hotel. "Seat him now! Seat him now!" It was a scene previously relegated to Democratic nightmares. It couldn't possibly get worse. Then it did: "John Kerry's next! John Kerry's next!"
Brown's victory speech probably didn't cheer them up. He promised to honor the memory of Sen. Edward Kennedy. But he also said that "in health care, we need to start fresh, work together, and do the job right." He spoke of "coming together" but also characterized the Democrats' agenda as "raising taxes, taking over our health care, and giving new rights to terrorists." He thanked Democrat Paul Kirk for filling the Senate seat—but also suggested his work there is done. And, finally, a warning: "What happened in this election can happen all over America."
Everyone has his or her own interpretation of why Brown won and Coakley lost. Which is why the aftermath of this election is likely to be as acrimonious as the election itself: No one can prove or disprove anything. Even more than usual, the pundits and analysts don't really know what they're talking about.
There's only so much we can learn from this election, largely because there were no exit polls. Normally, a consortium of news organizations pays a company to conduct surveys outside polling locations—but only when there's enough interest in the race to justify it. By the time national media started paying attention to the race, it was too late.
As a result, we don't know to what extent independents swung to Brown. We don't know how many women voted for Brown instead of Coakley. We don't know whether Obama's appearance drew more African-Americans to the polls than usual. We don't know why voters favored Brown, or when they made up their minds. Perhaps they liked his ideas on health care, his plan to keep Guantanamo open, or his smile. For all we know, his truck sealed the deal.
This lack of information has not resulted in a lack of commentary. Some think Coakley botched the race by not campaigning hard enough and by twice insulting a beloved sports franchise. Others say national Democrats fell down on the job. Some say a better politician, like Rep. Michael Capuano, would have destroyed Brown. Others say any Democrat would have lost—that it was baked into the proverbial cake.
Of course, it was a convergence of factors. The political climate may have been primed against Democrats, but it took a complacent state party and a formidable Republican whose skills didn't become apparent until it was too late to take advantage of the environment. It was a perfect failure.
That won't stop national Republicans from saying it was an across-the-board repudiation of Obama's agenda. (As Democrats pointed out, Brown himself rejected this notion.) Nor will it stop Massachusetts Republicans from claiming it's the beginning of a new era for the state. Others will say Scott Brown is simply the greatest Republican candidate of his generation. (Calls for a presidential run were already being voiced on Tuesday.)
On the Democratic side, recriminations began flying even before the polls closed. First, David Axelrod said the White House would have done more to help if only the Coakley campaign had asked. Team Coakley in turn leaked a memo arguing that the DNC "failed" them. National Democrats responded by pointing the finger at the Coakley camp for failing to define Brown before he defined himself. Coakley campaign officials blamed Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. Robert Gibbs reported that the president is "not pleased."
Meanwhile, Republicans rushed to take credit. Michael Steele blasted out a memo pointing out that the RNC was "working very diligently behind the scenes." The NRSC announced that it had quietly sunk a half-million dollars into the race. At the Brown rally, an aspiring congressional Republican sidled up to the press table: "I just want to say, I've been supporting Brown since the beginning."
Unclear is what comes next. "It's bad for Obama" doesn't quite sum it up. Possible scenarios for Democrats still range from "1994" to "actually pretty OK."
Worst case scenario—and probably least likely—Brown's 41st vote in the Senate destroys health care reform and gridlocks the rest of Obama's agenda, from regulatory reform to cap-and-trade. Brown's vote might not even be necessary: Moderate Democrats, seeing the vote in Massachusetts as a referendum on health care reform, could bail even without Republicans filibustering. (Sen. Evan Bayh has already signaled his concern.) Some Democrats might even retire to avoid humiliation in 2010, while Democrats who stay and fight go down under a populist wave.
More likely, Democrats make health care work. They still have options: Pass the Senate bill in the House and send it directly to the president's desk. Or scrap all the changes to the Senate bill except for funding provisions, and pass those using the reconciliation process, which requires a bare majority rather than 60 votes. They might not even need to delay seating Brown. Democrats may still have trouble passing other legislation. But Brown probably wouldn't be the be-all-end-all obstructionist his fans think. He could well be in the Olympia Snowe mold rather than the Mitch McConnell mold. Not cooperative, exactly, but persuadable.
Meanwhile, passing health reform could help pull Democrats out of their Bay State depression and give them a major talking point on the campaign trail in 2010. (This assumes that current opposition to the bill will diminish once people actually start benefiting from it, as when Congress first passed Medicare.)
Expecting anything more seems overly optimistic for Dems. But as Brown's victory showed, a lot can change in two weeks. Even more can change in the next 10 months.