In politics, as in life, there’s often a very fine line between a fluke and an earthquake. They can even be mistaken for each other. In many ways, Scott Brown’s upset victory over Martha Coakley on January 19 for the Senate seat long held by Edward M. Kennedy, just as Congress was nearing agreement on the health care bill, was a fluke. The confluence of seemingly unrelated events had more impact than any of them would have had individually. Even the date of Kennedy’s death last August had major consequences: if it had happened a month later, the President might already have signed a health care bill into law by the time the election was held. A senior Democratic House strategist told me, “Had we known that Massachusetts was in play, we’d have worked through the Christmas break and might well have been done before the election.” The bills passed by the House on November 7 and by the Senate on the day before Christmas were quite similar. (Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid and their aides, in consultation with the White House, had seen to that.)
As a result of intensive negotiations in early January, the bills were more than 95 percent alike by the time of the Massachusetts election. Two major issues remaining had to do, first—thirty-seven years after the Roe decision establishing abortion as a constitutional right—with Congress having adopted provisions in the health care bill that make it difficult (the Senate) or even impossible (the House) for women who received federal help to purchase abortion coverage with their own funds (really!); and, second, with excise taxes on the more expensive (“Cadillac”) plans, which labor objects to.
Republicans had applied the theory that the longer a bill is delayed, the weaker it becomes. Their real goal was to kill it. They gave Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus just enough encouragement that he engaged in a months-long effort to get Republican backing for the bill. The idea, shared by the White House, was that a bill with bipartisan support would have more legitimacy with the public; but the negotiations kept going long after it was clear that the Republicans didn’t want to help. (He got the vote in committee of Maine’s Olympia Snowe, who made a big show of her reluctance to give it—the diva who wouldn’t leave the stage—and then voted against the bill on the Senate floor.) Finally, even the White House gave up on Baucus and scheduled Obama’s speech to Congress on health care on September 9, to encourage his committee to wrap it up. By the time the Senate finally passed its bill on Christmas Eve, Coakley was losing altitude, but no one seemed to notice.
An election outcome is usually caused by a number of factors, but national observers tend to look for national implications. In fact, Coakley broke a fundamental rule of running for office …