Massachusetts Message

Posted Jan. 20, 2010, at 6:58 p.m.

It would be easy to read too much — or too little — into Republican Scott Brown’s win to fill the Massachusetts Senate seat long held by Democrat Edward Kennedy. Mr. Brown campaigned on an anti-Obama, anti-big government platform and erased a 30-point deficit to win Tuesday’s special election.

His victory, however, may not be as much an endorsement of Republican obstruction of health care reform, economic stimulus and other policies as a signal that voters are uncomfortable with how Democrats have pushed these agenda items forward.

Although it seemed apparent during the 2008 presidential campaign that Barack Obama was a liberal, many voters clearly thought he was a pragmatic centrist. Now that he has acted on many of his priorities, they don’t like what they see.

At the same time, President Obama is dealing with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, two long wars and a financial system slow to recover from decades of questionable borrowing and lending. Naturally, voters remain fearful about their economic prospects, which has grown into a distrust of government for many.

Republicans, wisely from a political perspective, have exploited this distrust. Democrats, on the other hand, have been slow to recognize it and even slower to respond to it. Rather than allowing Republicans to lambaste the pending health reform legislation as a government takeover of medicine, Democrats must explain that government already runs more than half the nation’s health care system, including the popular Medicare and veterans health programs, and show how better regulation can reduce insurance costs.

Like Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley taking her election as the state’s next senator largely for granted, Democrats in Congress have taken the logic of their position for granted — both at their peril.

Beyond the immediate consequences of Mr. Brown’s victory — which include throwing the health care debate into chaos because he is the Republicans’ crucial 41st vote necessary to stall Senate action — the divide it has exposed presents long-term challenges to lawmakers and the country.

According to exit polls conducted in Massachusetts by Rasmussen Reports, 78 percent of those who voted for Mr. Brown oppose the health care legislation; 93 percent of those who voted for Ms. Coakley favor the legislation. Eighty-six percent of Coakley voters say it would be better to pass the bill currently before Congress rather than doing nothing; 88 percent of Brown voters say it is better to do nothing. Sixty-one percent of Brown voters said reducing the deficit was more important than health care reform; 46 percent of Coakley voters said health care was a higher priority than deficit reduction.

To avoid complete political gridlock, which will only further inflame public anger, bridging these disparate views must be a top priority for Congress, the White House and the political parties, rather than pursuing the deliberately divisive strategies they are now employing.

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