Everyone knows that what doesn’t destroy you makes you stronger. That is particularly true in politics, where a hard kick either knocks you down or wakes you up.
President Obama and the Democrats got that hard kick last month, when a perfect storm resulted in the election of Massachusetts’ first Republican senator since Ed Brooke. In one night, the president lost the ability to push his signature legislative initiative — health care reform — to passage.
Across the country, Democrats struggled to understand how it was that the White House could have let that happen: Don’t they understand how angry and frustrated people outside the Beltway are, how turned off they are to the backroom deals and partisan warfare that has come to define the health care debate? Don’t they realize that no one in Massachusetts needs a federal bill, because the state (under Republican Mitt Romney) already established a still-popular program that extended insurance to almost everybody?
The real question coming out of Massachusetts was whether anything would change as a result. Losing one seat, particularly when it’s the 60th vote in the Senate, is not good. But it certainly beats losing a slew of them, as happened in the midterm election two years into Bill Clinton’s presidency, after his failed health insurance efforts.
In the first days after Massachusetts, it sounded like Democratic leaders were deaf as well as dumb. Nancy Pelosi aggressively reaffirmed her commitment to the sausage then being diced and sliced behind closed doors: Democrats, she said in so many words, would do whatever they had to do in order to shove health care down the throats of unhappy voters.
The first word from the White House was that the president was pushing forward on his plan: Their message was that the people were simply wrong, that they didn’t understand just how much the reform bill would accomplish, that they were the dumb ones, not party leaders. Democrats like me steeled ourselves for the bloodbath to come, wondering only how truly bad it would be.
But something seems to be happening on the way to disaster: Barack Obama has found his voice again.
In the past two weeks, the president has not only refocused his attention on what people care most about, which is the economy, but he’s taken his case to Republicans, making clear that he is willing to stretch out his hand. And if they slap it, he will speak out.
The president who campaigned on the promise to bring change through bipartisanship and transparency and then tried to govern by deferring to congressional partisanship and backroom deals now seems to realize that he must change the way he governs if he is to change the results. He seems to have heard the message that his real power comes not from a congressional majority but from the support of American voters, and that if he loses that support, all the backroom deals in the world won’t be enough to save him.
It’s too early to know whether the president’s shift will save his fellow Democrats this fall. But this much is clear: Without Massachusetts, they’d be in even worse shape right now. When the history of this president and this Congress is written, it might turn out that the perfect storm in Massachusetts was something of a miracle that saved their collective hides.