The Catholic University of America
Feb 25 2010

The Loss of the “Kennedy” Seat: Why Did Democrats Panic?

Posted by Matthew Green at 4:35 PM
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- Categories: Government & Civil Society

After the unexpected victory of Republican Scott Brown, elected in January to fill the Senate seat formerly held by Ted Kennedy, the news was filled with negative stories about President Obama and congressional Democrats.  Health-care reform, Obama’s signature issue, is “on life support;" Democrats lack unity and direction; and the party is reportedly in deep trouble as a number of Democrats, most notably Senator Evan Bayh, retire from Congress.  Why did one election shift momentum away so completely from Democrats?

The short answer is that Democratic lawmakers have become deeply worried about their reelection.  Certainly, recent polling data and the opinions of expert election watchers like Charlie Cook would appear to warrant such concern.  But a more complete explanation should take into consideration an important facet of congressional politics:  how incumbents interpret election results.

Reading the election tea-leaves is an old sport in Congress, as David Mayhew noted in his classic study of legislative politics, Congress:  The Electoral Connection.  “Nothing is more important in Capitol Hill politics,” he wrote, “than the shared conviction that election returns have proven a point” (p. 71).  Such a game is well-neigh impossible, as the early 20th century American journalist and intellectual Walter Lippman noted, since in an election “there are only two ways of expressing a hundred varieties of feeling” (1922, 149).  But that doesn’t stop lawmakers (and reporters, for that matter) from doing it anyway. 

This feature of congressional behavior greatly amplified the impact of the Massachusetts Senate election on the majority party’s behavior.  To be sure, the institutional procedures of the Senate, which now seem to require 3/5 of the chamber to pass nearly anything of consequence, meant that the election denied Senate Democrats the ability to enact legislation without GOP votes.  But more importantly, Democrats in both chambers interpreted the election as a repudiation of their legislative agenda – even if the Brown victory was a “fluke,” as Elizabeth Drew suggests.   As a result, the party appeared eager to drop not only health care but other major initiatives from their agenda (such as climate change legislation) and move instead to economy-related measures in the hopes of winning back (largely mythical) independent voters and saving their now seemingly-doomed majority in November.

Leadership is an essential ingredient in such circumstances.  Many mistakenly believe that effective leadership of Congress involves some level of force, threatening to discipline any who are disloyal.  Such strategy rarely works and usually breeds resentment and distrust, making coalition-building difficult in the future.  More valuable, especially in times of panic, is leadership that calms legislators’ nerves, provides direction, and gives them a sense of collective mission.  “Mass” psychology can be very important for how Congress operates, especially when fear and alarm spreads among lawmakers.

Until this week, such leadership was largely absent.  Majority leaders in the House and Senate seemed preoccupied with the prerogatives and internal politics of their respective chambers, and the White House gave decidedly mixed signals about what should be done.  As a result, congressional Democrats alternated between two modes of behavior, each mimicking the behavior of an animal facing an oncoming car:  paralysis, like a stunned deer caught in headlights, and panicked efforts to bring up new issues, like a squirrel darting back and forth in the road.

Whether Obama’s new tactics – introducing a health care plan of his own and holding a bipartisan public summit with Republicans on health care – will save his legislative priorities, Democratic control of Congress, or both is unclear.  But it does appear to have at least tempered the widespread fear that seemed to grip his party.  Perhaps the Democrats will find a way to use the power they still have in Washington to enact their agenda – even if they cannot avoid becoming electoral road kill.

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