All year we have speculated that the fading out of the late Teddy Kennedy was weakening the chances for a robust health care bill in the Senate. But who would have thought the special election to select his successor would put even the compromised version of that bill in mortal danger?
Now we know that Kennedy's demise has produced the unthinkable: a Republican in the seat that the legendary political family had held for nearly six decades. Moreover, that means the Democrats no longer have the 60-vote majority that has enabled them to move a bill through a chamber where every Republican votes no on every bill of consequence.
The victory of State Sen. Scott Brown over State Attorney General Martha Coakley seems unreal in the light of the day after. Laughed at for his youthful foray into nude modeling, Brown persevered and became a telegenic challenger. Coakley's campaign, a juggernaut through the primary, blew all four tires and sat down in mid-December, creating the opportunity for this week's historic upset.
Having spent her career positioning herself to break through on just such a historic occasion, Coakley was exposed as an utterly hapless street campaigner. The only memorable moments from her brief public forays were gaffes, including a howler concerning Curt Schilling, hero of the 2004 World Series and a demigod in Red Sox Nation.
What an anniversary present for President Obama, marking one year from his magical Inauguration ceremony one year ago! On that day, Teddy Kennedy suffered a seizure at the Inauguration luncheon. The world already knew of his brain tumor, but the events of that day made clear the graveness of his condition.
But who then would have thought that the Democrats would ascend to 60 votes in the Senate, adding a razor-thin win in Minnesota and a party switch in Pennsylvania to the fitful loyalties of independent senators in Vermont and Connecticut? And who knew that this would prompt the utterly lock-step response of all 40 Republicans voting no on every issue of consequence?
Having those 60 votes has determined the strategy of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid through the past several months. Having those 60 votes has made it possible for Reid to prevail on sticky issues, but it has also forced him to make awful concessions to secure the votes of the last two or three lawmakers in that supermajority coalition. Some of those concessions have been ugly enough that they may have contributed to Brown's breakthrough in Massachusetts.
For at least two weeks, it has been clear that the Kennedy succession in the Bay State had gone awry. It has also been obvious that intraparty feuding among Democrats and the rise of a referendum spirit among voters were combining to drown out any message Martha Coakley may have wanted to convey.
But throughout those two harried weeks, many Democrats told themselves that Massachusetts would remain the bluest of states. They could not believe the voters would repudiate the Kennedy legend and legacy. They could not believe this was happening.
Now, they know the truth. And while the sun will still come out on Beacon Hill and Capitol Hill with Brown in the Senate, that sun will not shine as brightly, and the political globe will have a new tilt.
Let's consider six leading elements of the fallout.
1) The 60-vote working majority in the Senate: Partly truth and partly fiction, the 60-vote Democratic majority has enabled Majority Leader Harry Reid to move the Senate despite Republican filibusters that have become as routine as rain. Reid has needed this patchwork for everything from health care to the spending bill that supports the U.S. missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The minority has flung itself en masse across the tracks on every bill of substance since summer. Suddenly, that approach looks less futile.
2) The Obama agenda as we know it: Up to now, every step of the Senate's health care journey has required the Democrats to stretch to their 60-vote max. Without that last vote, the chances of a strong climate change bill, or a tough reorganization of Wall Street regulations, or a new tax on bankers' bonuses, or a comprehensive immigration bill, will be greatly diminished.
3) The all-Democratic-vote strategy: With about three-fifths of the seats on Capitol Hill and a monolith of Republican resistance arrayed against them, the Democrats did the obvious thing. They wrote their bills to appeal to themselves and to hold their various disparate parts together. Now, they will need another strategy. And it will be difficult to bring it off without real concessions, now that the GOP feels itself on the march again. Unpredictable consequences here include a lesser profile for the independents and the more centrist Democrats.
4) The myth of one-party Massachusetts: As the one state to vote against Richard Nixon in 1972 (the source of the original "Don't Blame Me, I'm from..." bumper sticker), the Bay State has claimed a certain distinction as the bluest in the union. But it did vote twice for Ronald Reagan. And while all its congressional seats have been held by Democrats since 1991, it has had Republican governors for most of that same period. Massachusetts may have a Democratic voting habit, enforced by years of GOP weakness, but there is a streak of anti-tax, anti-establishment, anti-Washington politics here that is as old as the commonwealth itself. What's more, the basic rules of politics apply here. Candidates and campaigns matter. Hot beats cold. Frustration beats old party ties.
5) The sense of Barack Obama as a game changer: The president had no option but to campaign alongside Coakley in the waning hours of this looming debacle. It was the same Hobson's choice he faced in New Jersey and Virginia as the Democratic candidates there took the pipe in November. Polls in both states (which he had carried) showed the voters there still liked the president; they just didn't like his party's gubernatorial candidates. Polls in Massachusetts this week said much the same. But the idea that his appearance and speechifying can change a basic dynamic is now three-strikes-and-out.
6) The momentum of the Tea Party: Dismissed as a fringe phenomenon in the spring of 2009, the anti-tax Tea movement gained great visibility in a series of marches against the stimulus, the health care bill and the Washington of Obama in general. The party claimed at least partial credit for overthrowing Democratic regimes in New Jersey and Virginia in the fall, then turned with renewed vigor to its crusade in the commonwealth, pumping money and energy into the late phase of Brown's campaign. The win in Massachusetts is the perfect setup for the Tea movement's planned convention in Nashville in early February. Think there's any chance that the newly minted Sen. Brown will be there?