Polls across the board show Republican Scott Brown about to take the Massachusetts Senate seat that has been in the Kennedy clan since JFK. The Obama/Pelosi partnership is about to get scrambled, and the White House is looking to the Reagan presidency for guidance.
Reagan faced a similarly bleak economy, huge unemployment and a backlash against his economic program. He famously vowed to “stay the course” but suffered midterm losses and allowed some of his tax cuts to be rolled back.
The economy made a powerful recovery and Reagan was easily re-elected. But the Pelosi view of the Obama presidency as a chance for a liberal rebirth will be rethought. The “big bang” theory of trying to do as much as possible in the first year — when a president’s political capital is highest — is over. Democrats feel health reform took too long and diverted them from focusing on jobs. Reports from Massachusetts — the model for the national health bill — tell of a voter backlash against health reform and deficit spending. If Brown wins, it’s hard to see politically how Democrats muscle the health legislation through Congress, whatever their technical options.
Independents outnumber both parties and have swung recent elections to Republicans in Virginia, New Jersey and now apparently Massachusetts. Stanford University political scientist Morris Fiorina has argued that the electorate is not nearly as polarized as most people think. Independents are also notoriously fickle and lack the deep ideological commitments animating voters in both parties. Watch for a swing to the middle and a search for something like Clinton and Gingrich’s welfare reform. Republicans smelling blood will make that hard to pull off, but the administration shows signs of looking toward education policy as a place to start.