Even before all the votes were tallied and Scott Brown's victory was official, Democratic members of Congress were starting to panic on Tuesday.
"There's going to be a tendency on the part of our people to be in denial about all this," Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana told ABC News. But "if you lose Massachusetts and that's not a wake-up call, there's no hope of waking up." (Bayh's office emphasizes that he wasn't talking about health care.) Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, too, told Democrats to snap out of it: "In many ways the campaign in Massachusetts became a referendum not only on health care reform but also on the openness and integrity of our government process." And Rep. Anthony Weiner of New York said health care reform "might be dead" if Brown won.
Even Barney Frank, the famously liberal member of the House from Massachusetts, initially voiced serious concern about moving forward with health care. The House isn't going to pass the Senate's bill, he told constituents at first. Instead, he hoped that Republicans would cooperate in drafting "a revised version of health care reform." Frank has since walked back his initial statement, signaling that he would vote for the Senate bill if he had reassurances it would change down the line.
President Obama and the Democratic leadership have done their best to push back against the notion that This Changes Everything. David Axelrod took to the airwaves Wednesday morning to argue that Brown's election was not a referendum on health care reform. In an interview with George Stephanopoulos, Obama said the election was largely about voter anger and suggested that Congress "try to move quickly to coalesce around those elements of the package that people agree on."
What that means is anyone's guess. There's very little everyone can agree on when it comes to health care reform. If it were as simple as prohibiting denial of care for pre-existing conditions, there'd be a bill already. The underlying question neither group seems to want to answer is this: What's better for Democrats—passing an ugly health reform package using potentially controversial parliamentary moves or passing no bill at all?
Passing health care reform, either by shoving the Senate version through the House as-is or making small tweaks via the reconciliation process, would tick people off no matter what. Under the take-it-or-leave-it option, liberal House Democrats would have to hold their noses to support the Senate version's tax on "Cadillac" health plans. Meanwhile, Republicans and moderate Democrats would bridle at using reconciliation—in which some pieces of reform could pass with a bare majority—on a piece of policy that's not strictly budgetary.
On the other hand, not passing reform could be just as damaging, or more so. Democrats would have to campaign in 2010 without a powerful legislative accomplishment. They'd also have to explain their failure. It would be one thing if moderate Democrats hadn't already voted for the bill—they could claim they were never going to support it in the first place. But they did. Democrats in both chambers are on the record supporting it. No matter what, they'll have to explain their votes. They might as well get a legislative accomplishment out of it, too.
Only Frank answered the question head on. (And even he changed his mind.) He argued that the best option is to pass a revised version of health care reform, but if that's not possible, that it's better to pass no bill at all than to pass the Senate version as is. His rationale at the time: Even if Democrats go on to pass all sorts of popular regulatory reform and jobs-creation bills, voters will remember the mess of a health care bill and punish Democrats for passing it.
Most Democrats, however, deflect the question by saying Congress needs to "focus on jobs." It's a refrain that seems calculated to assuage the average Brown voter. But it's unclear how Democrats propose to do this. Some have couched job creation in the context of a climate bill: For example, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said earlier this month that Democrats will work to create "new jobs, good-paying, clean-energy jobs that can never be outsourced." Others suggest that a second stimulus package will be necessary.
What these approaches forget is that a climate bill looks increasingly unlikely and that the first stimulus—which many economists say wasn't big enough—is still unpopular. In fact, none other than Scott Brown explicitly campaigned against it. "[I]t's time to admit that while the $787 billion stimulus had the best of intentions, it failed to create one new job," he wrote in a recent Boston Globe op-ed. "We shouldn't pass yet another stimulus that adds to the debt without adding jobs." Democrats may be correct that the lesson of Brown's victory is that Americans want more jobs. But they're wrong if they think Brown voters want a second stimulus.
As a result, Democrats are stuck. They're desperately trying to appeal to the "angry" jobs-oriented voters who are supposedly responsible for voting Brown into office. But they haven't offered any solutions that will make those voters happy. Part of the reason is bad marketing. The stimulus package did create jobs, according to the administration. The bailout did prevent the economy from sinking into a second depression, according to most economists. Health care reform would reduce the deficit, according to the Congressional Budget Office. But Republicans such as Brown have won elections by campaigning against these policies. Democrats may believe in their own policies, but their defenses of them haven't worked.
Democrats want to show they "got the message," in Weiner's words. The hard part is figuring out how to respond to the message.