The Coakley memo and the Democratic blame game

Doug Heye Contributor
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“National Dems failed to aid Coakley until too late,” read the headline of a memo seeking to shift blame away from the Martha Coakley campaign and onto Washington. That such a memo was prepared is not altogether surprising. That the campaign was willing to send such a memo in the final hours of the election, however, suggests Democrats knew Coakley’s stunning loss was fait d’accompli and are poised to spend the next 11 months pointing fingers at each other.

Senior Democrats immediately responded, prominently (though anonymously) calling the Coakley memo “full of lies,” and the campaign the “worst case of political malpractice in memory.”

Coakley ran a horribly flawed, tone-deaf campaign. Candidates who complain of meeting with voters, insult members of the state’s largest religious denomination and attack a beloved sports legend, yet make time to hold a last-minute fundraiser in Washington, do not engender sympathy.

That’s not to say, however, her complains are without merit.

As noted in the Coakley memo, “the damage between her 20 point lead on Dec. 19 and the Jan. 5 Rasmussen poll that had Coakley at 9 points came from the national scene.” What took place between those dates? The health care vote, outrage over sweetheart deals in exchange for votes, the attempted Christmas Day bomber, President Barack Obama’s lackluster response to it and the further erosion of Obama’s poll numbers.

Democrats can blame Coakley for a lot, but it’s hard to lay all of this at her feet. No election takes place in a vacuum, and while it is often said that success has many fathers but failure is an orphan, the finger pointing ensures the blame game will continue, and include:

• Sen. Ben Nelson: The “Cornhusker Kickback” sounds more like a maneuver in professional wrestling than legislative language, but it caught wildfire among independents, who saw an example of Washington run-amok and violating promises of transparency from the Democratic tide of 2008. “Senator Nelson’s actions specifically hurt Coakley,” the memo read. Might vulnerable Democrats be saying the same thing?

• Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid: Poll after poll showed health care reform to be the top concern of Massachusetts voters. The election of Scott Brown not only threatens to scuttle the Democratic Leadership’s top legislative priority, it immediate increases the number of vulnerable Democrats. One can almost imagine Pelosi and Reid addressing their respective caucuses as if it were college orientation–“Look to your left and look to your right. One of those people might not be here next year…”

• The Democratic National Committee and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee: Party efforts were too little, too late, Coakley’s memo charged, leaving unsaid that anonymous attacks from Washington Democrats signaled that the campaign was over. After a year of coming up short in candidate recruitment, the DSCC’s first electoral challenge became an embarrassment. Republicans are as thrilled Sen. John Cornyn leads the NRSC as they are Sen. Chuck Schumer no longer helms the DSCC. For the DNC, Massachusetts represents the third Obama-carried state in three months where independents abandoned the party. Some have suggested that by giving a few speeches, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele has taken his eye off the ball. After Tuesday, those criticisms are better directed at the DNC chairman having, as recently as Saturday, two full-time jobs while going 0-for-3.

• President Barack Obama: Massachusetts voters rejected the Obama agenda. Does anyone believe such an upset occurs if Obama still enjoyed a 65%-plus approval rating? Obama took a calculated risk—a necessary one, perhaps—in reversing course and campaigning in Massachusetts. It backfired. Obama’s agenda is now imperiled—not because Sen. Brown represents the 41st vote, but because Democrats in conservative and swing districts will begin voting more conservatively and some may react to Tuesday’s vote by simply retiring—speculation on Reps. Leonard Boswell, Ike Skelton, and John Murtha and Sen. Reid run high. The aftermath also sends to Democratic candidates a message we saw first with Creigh Deeds: the White House has no problem throwing any candidate under this bus—not exactly an incentive to run.

It’s strange, but political parties tend not to learn from each others’ mistakes. The past two election cycles were filled with Republicans blaming each other for every problem the party faced. If nothing else, it helped Democrats hone their attacks.

Now, with the most Democratic of Senate seats turning Republican—and the GOP echoing Frank Sinatra’s famous declaration, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere”—Democrats are letting everyone know there is plenty of blame to go around.

Doug Heye, a veteran of political campaigns throughout the nation, has worked in the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate and George W. Bush’s administration.