Yes, Martha Coakley was a bad candidate. Except that she wasn’t a bad candidate when she won a huge majority running for attorney general of Massachusetts three years ago. Yes, Creigh Deeds was a bad candidate in Virginia’s governor’s race last year — except that he seemed like a very good candidate when the Washington Post championed him in the primary. And yes, Coakley’s rival Scott Brown is a good candidate, and so was Virginia’s Bob McDonnell, except both of them could easily have seemed like bad candidates under different circumstances.
One of the things that makes a candidate good is when what he says sounds sensible, calm, and reasonable by comparison to the other guy. What the (apparent) success of Scott Brown in Massachusetts, following McDonnell in Virginia and Chris Christie in New Jersey, tells us in part is that the policy criticism at the heart of their campaigns is connecting to ordinary people, to worried voters. And this is the great threat to the Democrats going forward this year and in November.
Democrats will be forced to defend and argue on behalf of policies that disturb more people than they comfort. And that is where the great danger lies. It’s one thing to speak in generalized pieties about children and health care and the needy and education, especially when the country is being governed by a president with a very different sense of what is best for America. It’s another thing to have to stand up for very specific pieces of legislation that advance very specific policies on these matters — left-liberal policies to be precise, in a country that is only one-fifth consciously and knowingly left-liberal.
Republicans learned this to their dismay when they were called to account in 2006 for the very specific policy choices made by George Bush in Iraq that were not working, and in 2008 for the policy choices that helped lead to the financial meltdown. There’s nowhere to run from a congressional vote; there’s nowhere to hide from a policy being advocated by a president from your party; there’s nowhere to turn for understanding that you’re only trying to do what’s best for America. The 40 percent who will always vote against you are going to have company among the 20 percent that bounce between the two parties when it comes to assigning responsibility for the choices you make and the party you’re a part of.
Last week I argued that the Scott Brown surge might indicate global trouble for incumbents rather than an ideological surge on the Right. I still think that’s true, but the thing is, the incumbents who can argue that they attempted to derail the policies the general public doesn’t like won’t necessarily seem like incumbents. (Coakley wasn’t an incumbent but is being treated as though she is.) If, indeed, Scott Brown prevails tonight and the repudiation of ObamaCare and other aspects of the president’s agenda deep inside Blue State territory are what is behind that victory, the political question remaining for the balance of the year as far as Democrats are concerned can only be whether things will improve dramatically enough in the economy to neutralize an unmistakable national sentiment among voters to take back what they did in 2008.