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."
A voice from the fringe? Well, perhaps. But nothing with which House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer would quibble. Like Stern, he inferred that voters were upset at Republican obstructionism. "I think what the public is angry about is they see, first of all, an opposition for opposition's sake." Oh. And the voters expressed this anger at Republicans by electing one more to the Senate? From a state that has not elected a Republican senator since 1967?
But the most obtuse whistler past the graveyard was Obama adviser David Axelrod, who denied that the Brown victory was a blow to health care legislation. This was a bit thick even for the interlocutor on MSNBC. Savannah Guthrie asked, "How can you interpret this in any other way that it is a total rejection of health care reform, given the fact that the candidate that won resoundingly would sign his autograph '41' -- the 41st vote against health care reform?" Axelrod tried to be soothing. " ... There are messages here. We hear those messages, but there is a tendency in this town ... to overblow things ... And I don't think it's about that one particular issue. I think there's a general sense of discontent about the economy and there's a general sense of discontent about this town. That's why we were elected. We are committed to doing something about it."
If Republican victories in three states that voted for Obama (New Jersey by 15 points, Virginia by 7, and Massachusetts by 26) were not evidence enough, polls have been showing since July that Americans are opposed to the health reform oozing its way through Congress. A November 2009 Gallup survey found 53 percent saying they disapproved of the way President Obama was handling health care. An ABC News/Washington Post poll in December found the same. In January, a Quinnipiac poll found that 58 percent disapproved.
The Obama administration amply enjoyed its opportunity to exult over its defeated rivals in 2008. But the spirit of "I trump you," which imbued the first year of the administration, has led to overreach and now to rebuke. It's one thing to disdain Republicans. It's another to dis the voters.