Pre-game Prognostications

The press looks for meaning in the Massachusetts Senate race

There are few things political journalists enjoy more than playing up a big event, pontificating on its meaning, and speculating about its future implications. So when an undeniably important story like the special election in Massachusetts — where insurgent Republican Scott Brown, who promises to be the key 41st vote for the GOP in the Senate, has gone from afterthought to favorite in today’s voting — the rhetoric about What It All Means can go into overdrive.

A loss by Democrat Martha Coakley has been variously portrayed as a death knell for the Democratic agenda, including health care reform; a repudiation of President Obama, who campaigned for Coakley over the weekend; or an omen of pending Democratic doom at the midterms this fall—and sometimes, as all of the above.

A Sunday story in The Boston Globe in advance of Obama’s arrival cast the vote as a key indicator of the president’s appeal—and his party’s ability to sustain a majority:

President Obama’s scheduled visit to the Bay State on behalf of Democratic candidate Martha Coakley today, a rescue bid planned suddenly by the White House last week after Republican Scott Brown pulled even or ahead in some polls, will be a key test of the president’s ability to re-energize his dispirited party…

The trend threatens to do serious damage to the Democrats this fall as they seek to hang onto their majorities in Congress. With “tea party’’ activists and other conservatives eager to vent their anger over Democratic policies, low Democratic turnout could be devastating to the majority party.

At The Washington Post, meanwhile, Chris Cillizza distilled the political ramifications this way:

It’s hard to overestimate the political impact of tomorrow’s race in Massachusetts on this November’s midterm election. Democratic strategists have already begun to fret privately that a loss by Coakley could set off a chain reaction that could significantly worsen the party’s outlook this fall. Democratic members of the House and, to a lesser extent, the Senate, who are already fretting about the possibility of losing their seats in 2010, would almost certainly take Coakley’s defeat as an indication of the toxicity of the national environment and head for the hills.… To date, Democrats have done an admirable job of keeping retirements in their ranks from spinning out of control. But a loss in a deep-blue state like Massachusetts — in a race for the late Ted Kennedy’s seat no less — would set off a panic the likes of which hasn’t been seen in Democratic electoral politics in a decade or more.

That’s the horse race angle. But what do the pundits make of the race’s impact on legislative outcomes? At National Review’s group blog “The Corner,” Kathryn Jean Lopez distilled the conventional wisdom: the strong possibility of a Democratic defeat means “Obamacare is in critical condition.” Writing from a different perspective, Andrew Sullivan comes to a starker conclusion: it’s already dead.

…I suspect serious health insurance reform is over for yet another generation.

Even if Coakley wins - and my guess is she’ll lose by a double digit margin - the bill is dead. The most Obama can hope for is a minimalist alternative that simply mandates that insurance companies accept people with pre-existing conditions and are barred from ejecting patients when they feel like it. That’s all he can get now - and even that will be a stretch. The uninsured will even probably vote Republican next time in protest at Obama’s failure! That’s how blind the rage is.

Ditto any attempt to grapple with climate change. In fact, any legislative moves with this Democratic party and this Republican party are close to hopeless. The Democrats are a clapped out, gut-free lobbyist machine. The Republicans are insane. The system is therefore paralyzed beyond repair.

Of course, no attempt to distill the race’s meaning for readers would be complete without a ten-point list, and the San Franscisco Chronicle’s politics blog helpfully provides one to explain why the election “is very, very important.” Along with all the obvious points, it offers this tidbit:

5. This is where the Boston Tea Party took place. New England “patriots” rebelled against high taxes by dumping tea into Boston Harbor some 235 years ago. Now, the new generation of “Tea Party patriots” is hoping to dump candidates (Democrat and Republican) who raise taxes and increase federal spending. Again, a big symbolic thing.

So what are we to make of all this? The urge to speculate is natural, and some — maybe much — of this pre-game commentary may prove to be on the mark. And this is not a case of the press hyping an unimportant event: whatever its other ramifications, a Brown win would clearly alter the political calculus on Capitol Hill.

Still, it would be nice to see the press try to exercise a little more restraint when it comes to offering predictions about the meaning of events — if for no other reason than that, however astute and well-informed they seem at the moment, they have a disturbing tendency to be proved wrong. As Jonathan Bernstein put it recently, while discussing fallout from the Massachusetts race: “Sometimes, the best prognostication anyone can give is: wait around and see.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.