Taking Tuesday's tough defeat to heart can make Democrats tougher to beat the next time.

Notes from the political sidelines.
Jan. 20 2010 11:54 PM

Cowboy Up

Taking Tuesday's tough defeat to heart can make Democrats tougher to beat the next time.

Senator-elect, Republican Scott Brown and his wife Gail Brown.
Senator-elect Scott Brown and his wife, Gail.

The morning after Martha Coakley won a four-way Democratic primary in early December, her opponents gathered in a Boston ballroom to present a united front. I stopped by to cheer on my friend Alan Khazei, who had won the Globe endorsement but tried in vain to convince primary voters to nominate an outsider. The most striking aspect of an otherwise unremarkable event was the backdrop behind Coakley, which said simply, "The Massachusetts DEMOCRATIC Party." A local operative joked that nowhere else in America would a campaign make the Democratic Party its general election message.

So much for that idea. It turns out that even in Massachusetts, a successful candidate has to be able to reach beyond party label. Among independent voters, Scott Brown beat Coakley by more than 2-to-1. Her generic campaign even turned off some moderate Democrats: Brown appears to have picked up Democratic crossovers at three times the rate Coakley carried Republicans.

Democrats across the country woke up this morning wondering how to reverse the curse that left us a nominee who could go on Boston radio and think Red Sox icon Curt Schilling rooted for the Yankees. Ironically, in the annals of epic defeat, the only one that rivals Coakley's is the Yankee collapse that made Schilling a legend. After such a disastrous campaign, Democrats' temptation will be a familiar reflex: to ignore the voters and blame all our problems on a lousy candidate.

Sadly, a debate on "who lost Massachusetts?" won't change the result, nor will if-only-we'd-passed-everything-when-we-had-60 historical revisionism. What matters is learning the right lessons from this election so that voters don't feel the need to teach us them again elsewhere:

First, the big problems that Obama inherited test the limits of what many Americans are prepared to trust government to solve. The economic crisis saddled Obama with a host of nasty and persistent challenges, from bailing out the banks and saving the auto industry to creating jobs and paying all the bills the crisis left behind. With so many people hurting, some Democrats assumed that the Great Recession would lead to a sea change in Americans' tolerance for government help. If anything, the reverse is true: Americans desperately anxious about their own finances have become more anxious about the country's.

That's no surprise to the administration. Throughout the health reform debate, the president has been outspoken about the fiscal importance of lowering long-term health costs, insisting that Congress offset new costs with new savings and that the final price tag stay well below what House Democrats wanted.

But in practical terms, the results from Massachusetts serve as a yellow caution flag warning drivers to proceed with care because of hazards on the track. As Sen. Claire McKaskill said Wednesday, "People out there believe that we are going too far, too fast." A party that believes that government has a role to play in solving national problems needs people's trust that government can actually do it. To succeed, Democrats still have to do what for decades has been—fairly or unfairly—our special burden: to reassure citizens every step of the way that our mission is to make government better, not bigger.

Even before the results were known on Tuesday, the White House and congressional leaders agreed on an important first step to do just that—a bipartisan deficit reduction commission that will propose a plan to put the nation's fiscal house in order over the next decade. That initiative helps on two fronts, by tackling voters' greatest long-term worry in a responsible way—and by giving any Republicans willing to be constructive a place to park their truck.

Second, the most results-oriented, cost-conscious, change-driven voters are independents, who loom more important than ever to Democrats' governing majority. Every cycle, Democrats have a tastes-great-less-filling debate about whether the way to win elections is to excite the base or persuade swing voters. The truth is, in easy races either course will do, but in tough districts, tough states, and tough years, we have to excel at both. For all the frustrations that come with managing a broad majority, a big-tent party won't do better by making the tent smaller.

In Massachusetts, Democrats turned out in impressive numbers for a special election. Unfortunately, too many Democrats on the fence defected to Brown, and independents turned out in droves to support him. Independents cost us any chance at the governorships in Virginia and New Jersey as well.

Obama did well with swing voters in 2008 and can do so again. The key is to keep reminding his supporters that he was elected to fix Washington, not put up with it. By definition, independent voters don't care about party labels and disdain partisan gamesmanship. They want Obama to keep pressing both parties to work together—no easy trick these days—and they want their president to be a spur to congressional action and a check on congressional excesses.

Third, health care retains its title as the Middle East of domestic policy. Democrats should find a way to get some form of health reform done, because, as Bill Clinton has reminded them, we know what happens to Congress when it fails to act. But on no issue is the gulf so great and so persistent between the need for national action and people's trust in government and the political system to get the job done right. Scott Brown is living proof of health care's exasperating contradictions—a man elected to the Senate for opposing for the country what he voted for in Massachusetts.

Finally, Democrats should remember that a party willing to take voters' lessons to heart has the chance to build a strong, more enduring bond with the electorate because of it. In 1994, Bill Clinton took the voters' message as a directive to govern the way he campaigned and be the president he was elected to be, not the president Congress wanted him to be.

The country didn't change teams on Tuesday. Americans still want Obama to succeed and still trust him to run the country far more than the other guys. As Curt Schilling might say, the Massachusetts race was more of a brushback pitch—a warning to those in power without regard to party that an electorate in a foul mood is always a force to be reckoned with.

The best advice for Democrats might come from Kevin Millar, another member with Schilling of the famed squad that went on to reverse the Red Sox curse. Millar made the team motto "Cowboy Up"—which means get back up, dust yourself off, and make sure it doesn't happen again. In politics, like baseball, what matters in the end is not what happened last game, but who's standing tall in November.

Bruce Reed, who was President Clinton's domestic policy adviser, is CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council and co-author with Rahm Emanuel of The Plan: Big Ideas for Change in America.E-mail him at thehasbeen@gmail.com. Read his disclosure here.