Martha Coakley: A Democratic Canary in a Coalmine?

Political operatives say the Senate race in Massachusetts between Democratic state attorney general Martha Coakley and Republican state senator Scott Brown is too close to call. But the fact that President Obama felt the need to fly to the Bay State to campaign for a Democrat in one of the most Democratic states in the nation speaks volumes about the ugly climate for Democratic candidates.

Coakley has run an imperfect campaign and has had a rough couple weeks. But, as one senior White House official acknowledged to me, "in Massachusetts, even after a rough couple weeks the Democrat should be ahead." Polls have Coakley and Brown neck and neck.

At the rally in Boston for Coakley yesterday, President Obama said a few things worth paying attention to:

1) Feigned Nonchalance:

The president said of Brown: "I don't know him, he may be a perfectly nice guy. I don't know his record, but I don't know whether he's been fighting for you up until now."

But he also revealed some fairly intimate knowledge of Brown and the race: "He voted with the Republicans 96 percent of the time," the president said of Brown's time in the Massachusetts legislature. "Ninety-six percent of the time." He took on one of Brown's best lines during the campaign, when he pushed back on a debate question about sitting in "Teddy Kennedy's seat" and said it's "the people's seat."

"There's been a lot said in this race that this is not the Kennedy seat it's the people's seat," President Obama said. "And let me tell you that the first person who would agree with that is Teddy Kennedy."

And he went after one of Brown's signature shticks, his old pickup truck, used to convey Everyman appeal. "You've got to look under the hood," President Obama said. "Forget the truck. Everybody can buy a truck."

Clearly President Obama -- as he should -- is well aware of Brown's record.

2) Health Care Reform? What Health Care Reform?:

Last week President Obama attempted to reassure House Democrats that health care reform would be a political winner.

“If Republicans want to campaign against what we've done by standing up for the status quo and for insurance companies over American families and businesses, that is a fight I want to have," he said. "I'll be out there waging a great campaign from one end of the country to the other, telling Americans with insurance or without what they stand to gain about the arsenal of consumer protections; about the long-awaited stability that they're going to begin to experience. And I'm going to tell them that I am proud we are putting the future of America before the politics of the moment -- the next generation before the next election.”

But in Boston -- a fairly hospitable "one end of the country" -- the president did not directly mention the health care reform legislation, opposition to which Brown has made one of the signatures of his campaign. He talked about Coakley being on the side of the people, and Brown on the side of the insurance industry, but there was no direct reference to Brown being the key vote against passage of the health care reform bill.

This was an obvious sign that the White House knows just how unpopular the legislation currently is, regardless of what the president told House Democrats last week.

3) I Feel Your Anger:

The president acknowledged voter anger in a more stark way than I can recall him ever doing. (And again: this is in Massachusetts!)

"The anger there is real," a White House official told me, and it's replicated all over the country.

"People are frustrated and they're angry, and they have every right to be," President Obama said, "I understand. Because progress is slow, and no matter how much progress we make, it can’t come fast enough for the people who need help right now, today."

He went on to paint Brown and the GOP as exploiting that "pain and anger to score a few political points. There are always folks who think that the best way to solve these problems are to demonize others. And, unfortunately, we're seeing some of that politics in Massachusetts today.

"You know, we always knew that change was going to be hard. And what we also understood -- I understood this the minute I was sworn into office -- was that there were going to be some who stood on the sidelines, who were protectors of the big banks, and protectors of the big insurance companies, protectors of the big drug companies, who would say, 'You know what, we can take advantage of this crisis -- because it's going to be so bad, even though we helped initiate these policies, there's going to be a sleight of hand here because we're going to let Democrats take responsibility. We're going to let them make the tough choices. We're going to let them rescue the economy. And then we can tap into that anger and that frustration.'

"It's the oldest play in the book," the president said.

It’s not that the White House has been unaware of how ugly the 2010 midterms could be for Democrats. But however this race turns out, the closeness of the Coakley-Brown race is an ominous sign for Democrats.

4) Planning for a Brown Win:

This was unsaid at the rally, but one other thing worth noting is that the White House is obviously preparing a strategy for health care reform in case Coakley loses.

As we reported previously , the White House would want the House pass the Senate bill, so the Senate doesn’t have to vote any more on the matter in the new post-supermajority Senate with Scott Brown.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has told the White House that she’s skeptical the House would pass that legislation, given the stark differences in some areas, but Senate Democrats and White House officials would push hard the notion that the bills are 90 percent similar and not doing so would be allowing the insurance companies to win. House Democrats would want Senate Democrats force the bill through by bypassing normal Senate rules and passing the legislation through the "reconciliation" process -- requiring only 50 votes. That would even allow some moderates to peel away.

But White House officials note that reconciliation is only for budget matters so the most popular parts of the bill involving insurance reforms -- banning the denial of coverage based on pre-existing conditions, for instance -- would not be part of that bill.

-jpt

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