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Brown’s Senate Victory Endangers Democrats’ Agenda

January 20, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Democrats are scrambling after Republican Scott Brown upset the Democratic attorney general for the remainder of Ted Kennedy's Senate term. For more on the implications in Washington and the Bay State, Gwen Ifill is joined by the Hotline's Amy Walter, Ceci Connolly of the Washington Post and the chair of the Massachusetts GOP.
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GWEN IFILL: Political shockwaves rippled outward from Massachusetts today. The loss of a U.S. Senate seat raised serious doubts about Democrats’ plans to pass health care reform and for the rest of President Obama’s agenda as well.

Until only a few weeks ago, this was the last thing anyone expected to see in Boston: Republican Scott Brown celebrating a special election victory.

SCOTT BROWN, R-Mass.: I bet they can hear this cheering all the way in Washington, D.C.

GWEN IFILL: Brown’s definitive victory over state Attorney General Martha Coakley left Senate Democrats with 59 votes. That’s one short of the supermajority the party’s used to get key bills passed. And it instantly casts a cloud over the future of health care reform legislation.

Brown campaigned against the Democratic health care bills. He argued they would pose an unfair burden on Massachusetts, which already has its own health care system.

SCOTT BROWN: Good morning, everybody.

GWEN IFILL: But, this morning, the senator-elect said what he opposes is Washington’s approach to health care.

SCOTT BROWN: I think it’s important for everyone to get some of health care. So, to offer a basic plan for everybody, I think, is important. It’s just a question of whether we’re going to raise taxes, we’re going to cut a half-a-trillion from Medicare, we’re going to affect veterans’ care. I think we can do it better.

GWEN IFILL: Republicans declared, voters sent a clear message yesterday that Democrats need to slow down.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-KY, minority leader: I’m convinced now that no gamesmanship will be played by the other side with regard to future votes in the Senate.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: The American people have spoken. The people of Massachusetts have spoken for the rest of America. Stop this process. Sit down in open and transparent negotiations. Let’s begin from the beginning.

GWEN IFILL: Indeed, many Senate Democrats appeared chastened by the Brown victory, which some predicted would affect every 2010 race. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid suggested voters are as concerned about the economy as they are about health care.

SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev., majority leader: First of all, we’re not going to rush into anything. As you have heard, we’re going to wait until the new senator arrives before we do anything more on health care. Remember, the bill we passed in the Senate is good for a year. There are many different things that we can do to move forward on health care. But we’re not making any of those decisions now.

GWEN IFILL: Democrat Paul Kirk, who was appointed to fill the seat left open by Senator Kennedy’s death last year, also said his party should not miss the message sent by Bay State voters.

SEN. PAUL KIRK, D-Mass.: There were a lot of things at play in Massachusetts, not just national health reform. But every election is an education. It’s an education for the constituents and the voters, but it’s an education for the candidates as well. And I think those who watched the Massachusetts election should learn some things for it as well.

GWEN IFILL: But, even as Senate Democrats appeared to regroup, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she plans to push ahead on health care.

REP. NANCY PELOSI, D-Calif., speaker of the house: As I said health care, again, heeding the particular concerns of the voters of Massachusetts last night, we heard. We will heed. We will move forward with their considerations in mind, but we will move forward.

GWEN IFILL: Several rescue options have been floated on Capitol Hill. One would have the House adopt the Senate-passed bill with no changes. Another would be to offer a stripped-down version of the compromise bill, which would require only 51 votes to pass. That is now under consideration at the White House.

In an interview with ABC News, President Obama suggested his party should now proceed carefully.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Here is my assessment of — of not just the vote in Massachusetts, but the mood around the country. The same thing that swept Scott Brown into office swept me into office. People are angry and they’re frustrated.

GWEN IFILL: The election results must be certified by the Massachusetts secretary of state and then approved by the governor. That process could take two weeks, but Brown said he hopes they expedite the paperwork, and he plans to make courtesy calls in Washington Thursday.

SCOTT BROWN: Since the election is not in doubt, I am hopeful that the Senate will seat me on the basis of those unofficial returns.

GWEN IFILL: The shakeup in the Senate also leaves question marks over the rest of the president’s agenda, from climate change to financial regulation.

One Senate race with so many implications.

Here to help us sort through them all are Jennifer Nassour, chair of the Massachusetts Republican Party, Amy Walter, editor-in-chief of The Hotline, National Journal’s political daily, and Ceci Connolly, national health policy reporter for The Washington Post.

Jennifer Nassour, we just heard the president say people are angry, and the same wave that swept him into office is what swept Scott Brown into office. Is that right?

JENNIFER NASSOUR: People are angry.

I mean, if you just look here in Massachusetts at — for our voters, they have been through three indicted speakers. They have seen three state senators who have resigned in disgrace, and we just increased sales tax over the summer. The Democrats in the House and the Senate decided that right now is a great time to increase our sales tax by 25 percent during a recession.

So, people are very frustrated. Jobs are leaving Massachusetts. The economy isn’t growing. The housing market is still not going anywhere. So, people are very frustrated.

GWEN IFILL: But, yet, Republicans are not even close to a majority in the Massachusetts electorate. So, how did Scott Brown pull it off?

JENNIFER NASSOUR: Well, his message was what resonated with voters. He talked about terror. He talked about taxes. He talked about spending. He talked about jobs. And those are all things that are on everyone’s minds right now.

If you look at what happened on December 25, right there, national security is very important to people, just as much as taxes and the economy are.

GWEN IFILL: Is it possible that Massachusetts is not as blue as we all thought?

JENNIFER NASSOUR: It is — I don’t think it’s as blue. You know, there are — 51 percent of our electorate is actually unenrolled, which means that they’re independents. They don’t affiliate with either party, which is really what took Scott — there were independents, Republicans and Democrats that voted for him.

GWEN IFILL: Amy Walter, let’s talk about those independents. We have seen them have an outcome in New Jersey, in Virginia, and now in Massachusetts.

AMY WALTER, editor in chief, The Hotline: And they broke almost exactly the same way in three very different states. Now, Massachusetts may not be as blue as we once thought, but it’s certainly a lot bluer than Virginia. And, yet, Virginia independents gave the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Bob McDonnell, about 66 percent of the vote.

We don’t have exit polls in Massachusetts, but the last polls that we saw and heard about, Scott Brown was getting about that same percentage of independents in Massachusetts. And, in New Jersey, you had a Republican candidate who got about 60 percent of independent voters.

Remember, in — in Massachusetts in 2008, President Obama got 57 percent of independent voters. So, it’s like they completely flipped. Now, to be fair, these aren’t exactly the same voters. I’m sure there are a lot of people who showed up in this election that didn’t show up in 2008, people who showed up in 2008 that stayed home.

But the anger thing is real. And I think it goes beyond just this idea about the economy or scandal or health care. I think there’s a fundamental question about the fact that folks aren’t taking seriously what independents were saying in 2008.

GWEN IFILL: Robert Gibbs said today at the White House news briefing that — he kept using the term wakeup call over and over again. And you saw what the president said. You saw what Harry Reid said.

Is it a wakeup call about the entire Obama agenda or is it about specific issues?

AMY WALTER: I think it’s about the way that they have gone about the agenda.

I sat in a focus group right after the election in 2008 in Northern Virginia with independent voters, many of whom had voted for Bush in 2004, voted for a Republican for Senate in 2006. And they all sort of said the same thing, which was, look, we know this economy is bad, and we don’t think that President Obama is going to solve it in a year or two years. The one thing that we know we want to see is a change in Washington, change the way that they do things in Washington. If he turns out to be one of those politics-as-usual kind of politicians, we’re going to turn away from him.

And that’s exactly what happened. I think they are frustrated by the fact that they — they have been duped, in a sense that they thought they were voting for something in 2008 and find, not only are things still the same-old/same-old bickering in Washington, but seems to have even gotten worse.

GWEN IFILL: And that he was perhaps focusing on the wrong things?

AMY WALTER: The wrong things.

GWEN IFILL: Ceci, everybody wants to know what happens with health care reform, because that was the 60 votes that everyone was looking for. And it was Ted Kennedy’s legacy. So, as of tonight, where does that stand?

CECI CONNOLLY, health policy reporter, The Washington Post: Well, Gwen, the results in Massachusetts are a real blow to the prospects for health care reform legislation.

And I think I would describe the blow as somewhere between debilitating and fatal, to be honest. We knew from the very beginning — here we are exactly one year from Obama being sworn in, and we knew from one year ago that time was going to be the enemy of health care reform.

And, in case Democrats had forgotten that, Alex Castellanos, the Republican strategist, put out a memo in July, saying essentially to Republicans, we can kill this by delay.

And that is exactly what happened. They sort of ran the clock out. They went all the way up to Christmas Eve, and still didn’t complete work. And I think that, in some respects, what Amy is talking about, it’s an electorate that looks and says, you spent a whole year on this, and you guys control the House and the Senate and the White House, and you couldn’t pull it off.

GWEN IFILL: Was this unhappiness unique — with this health care or what people perceive this health care plan to be, was it unique to Massachusetts, or is it something that is catching fire around the country?

CECI CONNOLLY: Well, I think what we have seen consistently this year in the polling data is that people are uncertain, and they’re anxious about what would happen to health care in this country, especially the 180 million Americans who have health insurance.

They say, look, I don’t like it. It’s too expensive. I want some things fixed. I wish other people had it, too. But, at core, people are saying, don’t mess with what I have got. I feel so fragile right now. I’m so anxious about so many other things.

And that uncertainty has sort of fueled the frustration that we see.

GWEN IFILL: And, in fact, Jennifer Nassour, in Massachusetts, what they have got is a — a health care plan that 98 percent of citizens are required to take part in. So, that was part of it? Did voters in Massachusetts say, hey, I have got it already; I don’t really need to buy into a national plan?

JENNIFER NASSOUR: That’s definitely part of it. We have it here. We know how it works. Our spending is a little bit out of control. We definitely need better managers.

But, I mean, I think that Senator Brown said it perfectly, is that we have it here in Massachusetts. Every state should have the option whether they want to buy into health care or not, but we do want quality and accessible health care for everyone, like we do here in Massachusetts.

GWEN IFILL: How much did out-of-state activists — you know, Scott Brown, in the last weeks of the campaign, when it looked like he had a chance, was embraced by the so-called tea party movement, other people who have come — who came into Massachusetts to work on his behalf and raise money. How much did that affect the outcome?

JENNIFER NASSOUR: We don’t — we don’t know who the key party activists are. And I think that there’s probably just a group of activists that have a label on them.

But I met people from different countries that were here to make phone calls and to knock on doors, to people from across the country, as far as Washington State, that came to Boston to help out. I think that it was just…different people.

GWEN IFILL: Did you say different countries? Really?

JENNIFER NASSOUR: Yes. We had actually — I met a young man last night who came from Australia. I met another man who came from London. I met another two gentlemen that came from Montreal. So, people were here from all over the place.

And, actually, interestingly enough, the men that were here from Montreal came because they were so against the U.S. buying into any sort of health care plan right now. And they said, if you want to see socialized medicine, come to Canada. And, so, they were here wanting to see the history being made in Massachusetts.

GWEN IFILL: So, Amy, what does this tell us about political aftershocks for 2010? I heard Barbara Boxer say today there’s not a race that won’t be affected by this.

AMY WALTER: This is absolutely the case. First, there’s not a race that’s not going to be affected in terms of fund-raising. And the outside money definitely was an issue in this race, Gwen.

But I think what’s more important was when you saw how much money Scott Brown raised once the alarm was sent that this was actually going to be a close race. In one day, he raised over $1 million. That was considered a big deal. And then he kept raising $1 million a day, and then another million dollars, another million dollars online.

And this used to be the purview, we thought, just of liberal Democratic activists. This was the Obama folks who were raising this kind of money. Now we’re seeing Republicans can do this, too. Recruitment, very important right now. The Senate’s almost done. The House, still, we have a long way to go.

I think, if you are at all on the fence as a Republican, you’re interested in getting in. If you’re a Democrat who is still on the fence, you may not want to. I’m looking particularly at Delaware, for example, where Beau Biden, the attorney general, the son of Vice President Biden, is considered a likely candidate for that seat that will be open in 2010. Does he want to run?

GWEN IFILL: And, until yesterday, like Martha Coakley, would have been considered a shoo-in.

AMY WALTER: Of course. It’s a blue state. He has a great last name, yes.

GWEN IFILL: … the vice president, yes.

AMY WALTER: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: So, is there any effort going on tonight, after the first day of shell shock, Ceci? Is there any effort being made to reconstitute something? The president seemed to hint at that, that there was something that was being cobbled together to salvage health care.

CECI CONNOLLY: Right.

And, interestingly, on that ABC interview today, Gwen, the president used terms like let’s coalesce around core elements, which…

GWEN IFILL: Which means?

CECI CONNOLLY: Well, some people reading tea leaves are thinking a much more modest, smaller, incremental kind of approach to health care. And that’s very much on the table as an option right now, a much smaller approach.

The difficulty is that, in health care, it’s kind of like one of those balloons. And, if you do something on one side, you can see more problems pop up over on the other side. So, it’s not that simple of just saying let’s just take insurance market reform, for instance, or even a little malpractice reform, or expand Medicaid, we will just do one or two little things, because that will exacerbate other problems.

And, so, I think that everyone, as you said, is so shell-shocked today, that they’re not thinking through some of the very complex policy issues at stake here. And, frankly, the other is — is the psyche on Capitol Hill. That is a place where everybody sort of gets under that dome, as you know well. And there’s a certain psyche that can take hold.

And we’re really going to see if the Democrats are — are so spooked by this that they just say, I just can’t stomach it.

AMY WALTER: And at the — at the same time, they — they know that, if they don’t pass something, just as you said earlier, oh, my gosh you spent a year doing this and you have nothing to show for it — how can they pivot on to economy and jobs and show the voters that they can accomplish something, if they couldn’t get this done?

GWEN IFILL: Well, they’re going to try.

Jennifer Nassour, Amy Walter, Ceci Connolly, thank you all very much.