Here are some thoughts on last night.
1. A year ago Barack Obama took the oath of office with enormous public support and unprecedented goodwill behind him. Today he presides over a party that is panic-stricken, having lost a Senate race in Massachusetts that ranks among the most consequential nonpresidential elections in American history.
The president is now badly wounded, his agenda badly weakened, his signature domestic issue in critical and perhaps fatal condition. Not many presidents have had a worse opening act.
2. The result of the Massachusetts election, which is epic, should not be seen in isolation. It is the most recent occurrence in a long chain of events, including crushing gubernatorial losses in Virginia and New Jersey. Massachusetts makes it an electoral hat trick for the GOP.
A year ago the GOP was in tatters, its “brand” tarnished, its supporters dispirited. Today Republicans are riding a wave of enormous size and force, one that is in the process of wiping out Democrats who occupy seats in states of every political color: red, purple, and blue. After last night's results, almost no Democratic seat that is being contested in 2010 can be considered safe.
3. January 19, 2010, is the date in which Barack Obama lost his secure hold on the Democratic party. That doesn't mean he doesn't retain influence over Democratic lawmakers; he obviously does. It doesn't mean he won't get his way from time to time; he will. It doesn't mean he can't reassert control at some time in the future; he might.
But for now, the fear and awe, the respect and deference, that Mr. Obama once commanded is gone with the wind. Democrats have seen the wreckage that Obama and his agenda are doing to them; they now feel at liberty to challenge him, to ignore his wishes, to go their own way. That won't happen all of the time, of course — but it will happen often enough to make life exceedingly difficult for the president.
4. I suspect we will see a damaging split emerge between the Democratic leadership — Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid — and other Democratic lawmakers. The former will talk tough; they will say its time to redouble their efforts, that now is not the time to turn away from their agenda, that reconsidering it in the wake of the Massachusetts election would be a sign of weakness and a path to defeat in November. “This is not a moment that causes the president or anybody who works for him to express any doubt,” a senior administration official told Politico.com. “It more reinforces the conviction to fight hard.”
Many Democratic lawmakers will think this counsel to be deeply unwise, bordering on insane. They will argue that the public has sent a message as emphatically as it possibly can: embracing ObamaCare and Obamaism is politically lethal. Give it up. And so the Democratic caucus will politely — and in some instances not-so-politely — decline to follow Obama, Reid, and Pelosi over a cliff.
Obama, Reid, and Pelosi will call the spirits from the vasty deep; but Democrats will not come when they do call for them.
5. The commentary on what Democrats should do regarding health care in the wake of the Massachusetts Massacre is split. Some, mostly liberals, argue that it is more imperative than ever to pass ObamaCare. To have traveled this long and far only to fail would lead to devastating losses in November.
The other camp argues that to pass ObamaCare now, in the aftermath of the elections in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, would be suicidal. Voters have made it as clear as they can that they passionately oppose what the Democrats are peddling; to still insist on jamming through massively unpopular legislation on a strict party-line vote, despite the expressed will of the majority, on the basis of unusually corrupt backroom deals, would have baleful effects on Democrats.
The fact is that there are elements of truth in both scenarios. Democrats will be badly damaged if they fail to pass health-care reform, but they will be damaged much more if they do. There is no good option for them. Democrats can choose a very bad option (don't pass ObamaCare) or they can choose a catastrophic option (pass ObamaCare). The former will happen, I think. Democratic lawmakers now understand the vaporizing effects ObamaCare has on them. Some significant number of Democrats on Capitol Hill will not want anything to do with it.
6. There is a slew of bad data for Democrats to pour through in the aftermath of Scott Brown's victory. But here is the most frightening data point of all: Mr. Brown won unaffiliated voters by a margin of 73 percent to 25 percent, according to pollster Scott Rasmussen. This 3-to-1 margin comes after independents broke for Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie by 2-to-1 margins in Virginia and New Jersey, respectively. This is a stunning, and for Democrats an ominous, development. More than anything else, it explains why they now face the prospect of losing both the House and the Senate in November.
7. In each of the last three elections — the gubernatorial races in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts — Democrats who were behind went negative and nasty at the end, in an effort to tear down the Republican candidate. And in each instance, the stratagem badly backfired.
Democrats have been operating on the assumption that they would lose in 2010 if the races turn out to be a referendum on their governance; as a result, they have convinced themselves that harsh, crippling attacks are the only road to victory. But voters are having none of it this time around. Independents in particular are making Democrats pay a fearsome price for employing brass-knuckle tactics. That means Democrats will, despite their fervent wishes, be forced to run on their record and their ideas. Which is why 2010 is shaping up to be a Republican landslide.
8. The radiating effects of the Massachusetts election will be enormous, including its effects on GOP recruitment and Democrats who opt to stay on (or retire to) the sidelines.
If you are a Republican, you now understand that this may be your best opportunity ever to run and to win; outstanding candidates who might otherwise not throw their hat into the ring will now do so. Conversely, many well-qualified Democrats, seeing the Category Five storm that is now hitting shore, will decide to take a pass at a run. We are seeing a virtuous cycle and a vicious cycle play itself out simultaneously.
Last night may turn out to be an inflection point for the Obama presidency.
Happy Anniversary, Mr. President.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiatives.