Without hyperbole, one can say that today’s special election in Massachusetts is the most important poll of Barack Obama’s first term. Stunned into action, Democrats are madly criss-crossing the state to prevent a shocking political defeat that could not only kill the healthcare bill, but could also doom prospects for passing climate change legislation and financial reform. In other words, the result of today’s election could deal the new president such a grievous injury that he will be unable to recover and spend the next three years in lame duck status.
Exaggeration? Not really. The special election is to fill the senate seat held for 40 years by the legendary Democrat Ted Kennedy, who died last year. Massachusetts (often derided as “Taxachusetts” by the right) is without a doubt the most liberal state in America, and it is almost entirely dominated by Democrats. The entire congressional delegation (both senators and all ten representatives) are Democrats. In the Massachusett’s 200-person state legislature, only 21 representatives are Republicans.
When Kennedy died and the popular Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley was chosen to run as the Democrat for the seat, the race was expected to be a non-event. Coakley and the state Democratic party seem to have assumed the election was a mere formality, with the Democrat guaranteed to win no matter what, and they did barely any campaigning. But in late December the previously unheard-of Republican challenger, former male centerfold model Scott Brown, suddenly started surging in the polls. And once the national Republican Party could taste blood, they went all out. They’ve poured money into Brown’s campaign, which has also attracted the attention and donations of the populist “tea party” movement coordinated by Glenn Beck and Fox News. Brown has been criss-crossing the state in his pickup truck, using populist appeals to "kick those bums out of Washington" and railing against "big government". His poll numbers have grown and grown until now he is in a dead heat with Coakley. Democrats seem to have only realised the danger in the past week and have suddenly leaped into overdrive mode, with Obama and other high-profile Dems like Bill Clinton visiting the state and desperately stumping with Coakley. Polling now shows the race as too close to call.
So why is this race attracting so much fervour? Two reasons:
A loss for the Democrats in arch-liberal Massachusetts would be a political earthquake. If Obama can’t hold a senate seat in Massachusetts, there’s no hope for the Democrats in the upcoming midterm election in November. The symbolism of a Republican victory in New England would be a huge galvanising force for the already energised Republicans, and it would shock and demoralise the Democratic base. Huge Democratic losses in the midterm election in November could follow, which could topple the Democrats from their majority in either house of congress.
But more importantly, if Brown wins today’s election the healthcare legislation is dead. Right now the Democrats have a “supermajority” of 60 members in the senate, enough to kill a filibuster by Republicans A filibuster is a technique exploiting an archaic loophole in senate rules by which a member of the senate talks endlessly and refuses to stop until the majority party gives up on whatever bill they’re trying to pass (as exemplified in the famous scene from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). It takes a vote of 60 members to stop the person from talking, ergo, the minority party needs at least 41 members out of the 100-member body in order to kill legislation proposed by the majority party. The filibuster used to be used sparingly and only in extreme circumstances, but in the last decade it’s come to be used for every bill, making the practical hurdle for passing legislation in the senate 60. And this is exactly the number of members the Democrats currently have.
The healthcare legislation has already passed both the senate and the house, but the final bill still requires approval by both houses after its gone through reconciliation. If Brown has vowed to support a filibuster against the legislation if he becomes the 41st Republican in the senate, which has attracted the support and money of the ‘teabagger’ movement, who believe the legislation is the beginning of a socialist dictatorship. The national Republican Party has called a potential defeat of the healthcare bill “Obama’s Waterloo”, and they are salivating at the chance to deal a crippling blow to the administration. Democrats are terrified. They know a defeat of healthcare would be a disaster for Obama from which he could likely not recover.
It wouldn’t just be healthcare that the Republicans could then derail. They are also eager to stop the financial reform legislation that would tighten regulations on bankers and financial institutions, and the climate change bill that would put in place a cap-and-trade system in the US to reduce emissions. And if the defeat of healthcare would cause widespread disillusionment with Obama at home, the defeat of those other two bills would cause an almost despondent reaction from the international community, especially Europe.
Even though Brown is polling ahead of Coakley going into today’s poll, many political analysts are still saying they expect Coakley to win – if only because the prospect of Democrats losing Ted Kennedy’s seat in Massachusetts seems so incongruous. But even if she is able to squeak out a victory today, the fact that this race had Democrats running scared is a very bad sign for Obama. However today’s election turns out, the November election is not likely to be kind to the new president.