You cannot lead solely by following election returns. But some members of the Democratic Party are now testing the proposition that you can ignore them.
A year ago, they luxuriated in victory. On Jan. 23, 2009, newly minted President Barack Obama, in a meeting with congressional leaders at the White House, indicated that bipartisanship (campaign rhetoric notwithstanding) was not on the agenda. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., raised objections to the idea of "tax credits" for people who did not pay taxes. The president was dismissive. "On some of these issues, we're just going to have ideological differences," he said. "I won. So I think on that one, I trump you."
The morning after the off-year elections that saw Republicans take the state houses in New Jersey and Virginia, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi declared, "We won last night" because a Democrat (who campaigned against the public option) won a special House contest in upstate New York after a bruising intra-Republican fight.
There's spin and then there's vertigo. Contemplating the possibility that a Republican (a what?) might actually win the Senate seat made vacant by Ted Kennedy's death -- a Republican, moreover, who explicitly promised to be the 41st vote to uphold a filibuster of the health care behemoth -- Pelosi's spin cycle went into overdrive. Rattling like a clothes dryer missing one foot, she declared on Jan. 18, "Let's remove all doubt. We will have health care one way or another." And even as the returns were announced, she insisted that "we are right on course."
As the staggering upset in Massachusetts came into focus, some Democrats faced the music. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., expressed disappointment, but realism: "I feel strongly that the Democratic majority in Congress must respect the process and make no effort to bypass the electoral results." Sen. James Webb, D-Va., called Brown's election a "referendum" on the health care legislation and advised "suspending" further votes until the newest senator was seated. Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., suggested that the Democratic Party had veered too far to the left.
Speaking of the left, Andy Stern of the Service Employees International Union diagnosed the Massachusetts loss as a rebuke to Democrats for not yet passing health care reform. "Make no mistake," he said, "political paralysis resulted in electoral failure."