Today is the day Massachusetts voters go to the polls in a special election to fill the Senate seat long held by Ted Kennedy (Paul Kirk has occupied it on an interim basis until this election). Democrat Martha Coakley is in a tight race with a smooth-talking, telegenic Tea-bagger, Scott Brown.
National Democratic figures have been appealing for help in near-panicky tones in the past two weeks, since polls showed Coakley's margin of lead narrowing, then disappearing entirely.
Scott has run a campaign with national overtones, declaring that he is running to be the 41st Senator to stop President Obama's program, and specifically to stop the healthcare bill, which is still awaiting the completion of the final set of compromises to produce a single, identical bill to be passed in both Houses of Congress. It is not an idle threat; the delicate formula which got exactly the necessary 60 votes in the Senate could be easily upset, and Brown's vote replacing Kirk's could either throw the thing into new chaos or stop it dead in its tracks.
I have been unmoved to act, though. First, I am being tight with my contributions this season--at least until my cash flow improves. Second, I am unfamiliar with Coakley; while I'm sure she'd be immeasurably better than a Republican, and a Tea-bagger at that, I don't feel comfortable calling Massachusians (or whatever they are; that's what some of the John Kerry-type emails were asking me to do) and telling them how they should vote, and why.
I have to start from the point of view that there should be no way Coakley could lose in Massachusetts; if there is, there's something wrong with her, her campaign, or something not apparent about Massachusetts voters. As Timothy Egan pointed out in an excellent "Opinionator" column on the NY Times blog, Massachusetts is already familiar with "Obamacare"--it's called "Romneycare" there. The approach Congress is legislating for health care insurance reform is very much the same one Massachusetts approved a few years ago with Mitt Romney as governor: mandated private coverage with subsidies. The results, by the way, seem to be: success in increasing coverage, no improvement in the cost curve, private insurers more pleased than the public. So, while I'm sure Massachusetts voters may have qualms about the national program, there isn't much of a self-interest involved (except if there were an increase in Medicare taxes, which isn't happening yet), and I doubt it's just altruistic concern for the rest of us that is floating Brown's boat.
Instead, it's just a matter of turnout for the Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters, and the party machinery doing what it is supposed to be able to do.
Finally, I am not one who believes that one Senate vote is going to wreck Obama's legislative program. I would still bet that Coakley will win--narrowly--but if she doesn't, there are several ways remaining to skin the healthcare cat (listed in order of my preference):
o) Find a new, better compromise, maybe the "potwt" (public option trigger with teeth), and get the vote of Olympia Snowe;
o) Find legislative maneuvers to get the bill through the Senate with less than 60 votes;
o) If the vote is close, hold up the decision through recounts until Kirk & Co. can vote on the current compromise, or something similar (the Republicans held up Al Franken's becoming a senator for six months in 2009, so it would serve them right);
o) The House can simply approve the Senate's version of the bill--then there is no further vote necessary in the Senate (I don't like this option much, and I don't think it's likely); or, worst case,
o) If the vote is not close, hold up the swearing-in of Massachusetts' new junior senator until the deed is snuck through. The blowback from this would be heavy, but the Republicans have done as bad, or worse, and gotten away with it. Six months from now, no one may care, and five years from now, the ruse may be praised. It's not as though there isn't a Senate majority in favor of the bill.
Still, I don't question that the by-election has significance--going down the road with other legislative battles, to be sure. There is no hope to change the filibuster rules in this Congress--that would require two-thirds vote in the Senate--though I do think the Democrats should make plans to implement a new modified cloture rule for the next Congress (approval of rules at the beginning of the new Congress in 2011 should require only a simple majority, if I understand it correctly). There are going to be other issues coming up where party-line voting will prevail and the support of the few moderate Republicans will be critical. In England, by-elections like this can be huge drivers of political momentum, even bringing down governments; that won't happen here, but it will definitely be a wake-up alert to possible catastrophic danger if the Democrats can't even win in Massachusetts.
I'll post a comment once the results are known.