Thursday, January 14, 2010

No Passion For Coakley

The U.S. Senate contest in Massachusetts has been heating up for weeks now, with Scott Brown (R.- Cosmo) dramatically gaining ground on Attorney General Marsha Coakley.

High-profile Republicans have been all over the race and Brown has raised tons of money. The Democrats finally responded. Governor Deval Patrick has been campaigning with Coakley. A fundraising appeal from Vicki Kennedy, widow of Edward M. Kennedy (for whose seat, now held by Paul Kirk) Brown and Coakley are vying) brought in more than $500,000 and Senators Chris Dodd, Patrick Leahy, Al Franken, and Harry Reid "passed the Kennedy appeal on to their fundraising lists," according to Talking Points Memo. Tomorrow, Senator Kerry and former President Clinton will appear at a rally to gin up voter turnout.

Who could be missing? Presidential Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on January 11 stated "The president doesn't have any travel plans to campaign in
Massachusetts." President Obama has cut a two-minute web video sent to "Democrats and Coakley supporters" in Massachusetts but has neither appeared in person nor cut a television ad.

Republican Party chief Rush Limbaugh suggests that Obama is less popular in Massachusetts than Coakley and that the President's involvement probably would hurt the Senate candidate, though characteristically, Limbaugh stops just short of a definitive claim. Nevertheless, the President's apparent, relative lack of interest in the race is perplexing, especially given Brown's promise to be the 41st vote in the Senate to kill health care reform.

The reason for the Mr. Obama's nearly-hands off approach may lie in consideration of the ways in which legislation might be passed if (as is still slightly improbable) Coakley is defeated. The New Republic's Jonathan Chait raises three possibilities, the first two of which he credits to Politico's Ben Smith:

The first is to rush a bill through both chambers before Brown takes office. The second would be for the House of Representatives to pass the Senate bill unchanged, which would require no further vote by the Senate.

The third possibility, unmentioned by Smith, would be to go back to Olympia Snowe.

Chait believes the second scenario is likeliest. The second and the third option, however, would yield roughly the same outcome: further debasement of already debased legislation. If Harry Reid/Emanuel/Obama go back to Olympia Snowe, the concessions offered to the Maine Senator would leave even Ben Nelson's Nebraska shortchanged by comparison (and probably result in Susan Collins joining Snowe as "reform" ironically passes with 61 votes).

If House Democrats- many of whom, not being conservatives, believe their bill does not go far enough- are strongarmed into passing the Senate version unchanged, it will mark a devastating defeat for genuine health care reform. It wasn't so long ago that the mantra of congressional liberals/progressives was "let's just pass a bill, we can clean it up in conference." That's still a possibility- but not if the Senate bill is approved unchanged.

If Rush Limbaugh is wrong- and he usually is- the President and Chief of Staff may see a defeat of Coakley as not an obstacle but rather an opportunity- a chance to pass a weakened health care reform bill and deliver a blow to the left. That probably is a way of ingratiating the President to the special interests, and possibly to middle-of-the-road voters, but hardly a way of rewarding those who envisioned an Obama presidency as a path to change.

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