WASHINGTON -- The day after Republican Scott Brown's decisive win in Massachusetts, President Obama and the Democrats were still trying to get a grip on reality about his unpopular healthcare bill.
Obama blamed the Democrats' crushing defeat in the critical Senate contest on his administration's failure to focus more on the still-weakened economy. The political rebellion against government-run Obamacare was nowhere on his list of reasons that led to his party's rout in one of the most liberal states in the country.
Sure, many issues fueled the voters' unhappiness -- especially double-digit unemployment, a failed stimulus spending binge, trillion-dollar budget deficits, unprecedented debt and higher taxes to come.
But exit polls at voting places around the state showed that 52 percent of the voters said they opposed the healthcare legislation, and 42 percent said they cast their vote to help Brown stop the president from passing his healthcare bill.
But as Sen.-elect Brown was preparing to fly to Washington, White House aides were still insisting that Tuesday's election was not a referendum on Obama's presidency or a reflection of deep unhappiness over his healthcare legislation.
Democratic strategists who have talked to party leaders said that there was even reluctance in the White House to recognize that the nation's independent voters were deserting the party in droves over health care.
Even some of the most die-hard Democratic supporters of healthcare reform now recognize the political threats posed by the $2.5 trillion tax-and-spend contraption Obama and his aides were pushing toward swift enactment before Tuesday's vote.
A couple of days before the votes were cast, longtime liberal crusader Bob Kuttner, co-editor of The American Prospect magazine, acknowledged that "the health bill has already done incalculable political damage and will likely do more."
"It is hard to know which will be the worse political defeat -- losing the bill and looking weak, or passing it and leaving it as a pinata for Republicans to attack between now and November," the Boston Democrat said in an analysis in the Huffington Post Web site. Obamacare had "become politically radioactive," he said.
Democratic leaders were desperately trying to come up with a plan to save the centerpiece of Obama's domestic agenda that had now become a huge political liability by week's end.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, defiantly promising that a bill will be enacted in spite of its rejection by the voters, was pushing the idea of just passing the Senate-passed bill and sending it to the president's desk. But key measures that helped the Senate bill barely squeak through, such as the $100 million Medicaid payoff to Nebraska to buy Sen. Ben Nelson's vote, are poison pills that House Democrats hated.
Besides, Pelosi has little maneuvering room in her party since the House first passed its version last year. It passed by only five votes and has less support now in the face of polls coming back from congressional districts that show growing public opposition. One campaign adviser says he is telling his Democratic clients to "jump ship now."
In Ohio, Rep. Steve Driehaus of Ohio's 1st District, a reliable backer of the party leadership, is trailing his Republican challenger by 17 points. In Michigan, Rep. Mark Schauer was running behind his GOP challenger by nine points. In Arkansas, Rep. Vic Snyder was in danger of being crushed by his GOP rival, who led by 17 points in the polls, before calling it quits earlier this month.
"The message resonates not only in Massachusetts but throughout the country," the National Republican Congressional Committee wrote the day after Brown's victory. "Vulnerable Democrats who continue to back their party's reckless healthcare push will make the Massachusetts special election look like a walk in the park."
Adding to the Democrats' growing confusion was the cacophony of mixed messages that were coming from the White House and the party's rank and file.
In a post-election interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, Obama seemed to suggest the bill could be scaled back to its major provisions and that there was now time to engage the public in a longer discussion of what his healthcare plan would accomplish. Regulating the insurance companies and price-fixing were still among his chief goals, he said.
But there was a growing feeling that Democratic leaders were losing control of their healthcare agenda as their members were reassessing the political costs of marching lock step toward whatever plan congressional leaders could cobble together if they chose that route.
Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin said Democrats needed to go "back to the drawing board." Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, who voted for the bill, now wants Democrats to rethink their approach to governing.
Maybe it's dawning on the Democrats' rank and file that there is no way they can sell this healthcare turkey, no matter how much they reshape it. "The measure is so unpopular," Kuttner wrote, that Scott Brown "built his entire surge against (Democrat Martha) Coakley around the promise to be the 41st senator to block the bill."
Brown not only won a Senate seat but he may have stopped this bill before even casting a vote.