What it means: Minnesota politicians assess Massachusetts vote

On the left-right spectrum on which we typically measure political candidates, you can’t get much farther apart than DFLer John Marty and Republican Allen Quist.

Yet, this morning these two had remarkably similar assessments about what happened in Massachusetts Tuesday night when Republican Scott Brown defeated Democrat Martha Coakley in the special election to fill the seat of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy.

To both Marty, who is running for DFL endorsement for governor, and Quist, a candidate for the Republican endorsement for the chance to run against incumbent Rep. Tim Walz, the issue was only in part health care. The underlying issue was trust in government.

“Last year, people voted for change,” said Marty, whose gubernatorial campaign is centered on a universal health-care program for Minnesota. “But what they have seen is that big money still is in charge. There are Wall Street bailouts and with health care, the insurance companies and the pharmaceutical companies are still in charge. … The perception is that Washington still is not listening to them.”

Sen. John Marty
Sen. John Marty

Quist, an opponent of the health-care overhaul that’s been grinding through the Washington process, was almost an echo.

“What is hurting Democratic leaders the most is the perception that they don’t care about what the public thinks,” Quist said. “People get to Washington and they get caught up in their own private world.”

The two even cited President Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, in explaining the impact of the Massachusetts election.

Quist, and others in his party, sees this as the beginning of great opportunity for a Republican comeback.

“I hear talk of Republicans picking up 30 seats [in the House],” Quist said. “I believe that’s way understated. If the election were to be held today, it wouldn’t be 30 seats. It would be two to three times that.”

‘Bill is dead’
He also believes that Brown over Coakley also spells the death knell for health-care reform as it’s currently constituted in the House and Senate.

“I think the health care bill is dead,” said Quist. “The smart thing for Democrats to say is, ‘OK, we got the message. We’re going to work on other things.”’

Marty is concerned that his Democratic colleagues will read the political tea leaves as Quist is reading them and flee away from a fundamental need, universal health care, which is directly tied to the economic well-being of millions of Americans.

“Government is not doing a good job of this,” Marty said. “But the Republicans are even worse at it than the Democrats. I don’t see any Republican plan.”

Quist, it should be noted, disputes that. He believes reform should include such things as tort reform, and changes in the tax code that would allow individuals to make private health-insurance payments 100 percent deductible. “When Obama takes office, who does he appoint as his chief of staff?” said Marty. “Rahm Emanuel. When he was in the Congress, he was one of the biggest fundraisers in Washington. It leads to that perception that money talks.”

Quist pointed to Emanuel in a different context.

“I believe he once said that crises are opportunities to do great things,” said Quist. “His definition of great things are probably different than mine. I’m hoping that all the furor creates genuine change. There is inertia out there to do great things.”

One last thing that Marty and Quist agree on: What happened in Massachusetts will have impact on all levels of races in Minnesota and across the nation.

Allen Quist
Allen Quist

Marty, on the other hand, believes that reform has to mean a universal health care system, much as we have universal fire and police protection. He gets angry every time he talks about the obstacles individuals face in dealing with private insurers. He believes Democrats need to trust their instincts and come up with a much more sweeping change than currently is being considered.

Ultimately, he said, Massachusetts only proves what most pols long have recognized. Politics isn’t about “left” or “right.”

“Most people don’t vote ideology,” Marty said. “Paul Wellstone used to say that. You have 15 percent at each of the extremes who vote ideology, the rest vote on what’s center to their lives.”

At one point in Minnesota, Marty said, Minnesota was represented by Sens. Wellstone, Rod Grams and Gov. Jesse Ventura.

“There’s no common ideology there,” said Marty. “People believed that those were politicians who were listening to them.”

Leaders aren’t listening
There are lessons for Democrats in Massachusetts, Marty said. Right now the lesson is that people don’t think leaders in Washington are listening.

“Government is not evil, government is not good, it’s us,” Marty said. “But there’s the sense that it’s been turned over to special interests.”

Republicans see it slightly differently. They believe the message from Massachusetts is that their day is coming again soon — from state legislatures all the way to D.C.

Rep. Michele Bachmann released a happy-days-are-here-again statement.

“It didn’t take the American people long to see through the extreme liberal agenda of President Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress,” she said. “We saw Americans’ frustration start in the form of tea-party protests in states from coast to coast. It continued with the town halls throughout last summer. But we saw it come into full focus yesterday in conservative Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts. … The American people have spoken, and the momentum is clearly at the backs of conservatives heading into the 2010 elections.”

Tony Sutton, the chairman of the state’s Republican Party, was similarly excited.

“Scott Brown’s historic victory is the clearest signal yet that 2010 will be a great year for Republicans,” he said in a statement. “In the bluest of blue states, Brown’s strong opposition to government run health care and out of control spending resonated with independents, Republicans and many Democrats fed up with the broken status quo in Washington. In November, it is time to restore fiscal responsibility in this country by voting out all the big spending Democrats in Washington.”

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (23)

  1. Submitted by Erik Hare on 01/20/2010 - 11:04 am.

    Good for both of them to see that this is a much bigger issue.

    As I wrote today, the real problem is a disconnection with reality that makes whatever happens in Washington remarkably irrelevant to the dire situation in our economy. People are angry for a very good reason, and conventional politics isn’t even able to comment on it constructively – left, right, or center.

  2. Submitted by Bill Coleman on 01/20/2010 - 11:24 am.

    The election in Massachusetts confirms the reality is that the Democrats never had the 60 votes to pass health care. If they did, they would have passed the health care reform as soon as Franken provided that 60th vote.

    Those Democrats, on the far left and to the right of center, who have fought this public battle within their own party, have two choices on health care- do nothing like whipped puppies or do something through the budget process that will only require 51 votes for approval thus reinforcing the GOP message that the health care reform is being forced down the country’s throats. Great job!

    Meanwhile, the GOP marches lockstep voting no against everything. Their supporters view them as freedom fighters. I view them as something much less – a group that only cares about returning to power with no regard for the country.

    Paul Krugman had a great article about Reagan blaming Carter for the crummy economy for years. I would take stagflation any day for what the Bush team left Obama to deal with.

    How can people forget double digit rise in health care costs for 8 years with no action, a frozen international credit market, home foreclosures, bankruptcies of two of three major auto manufacturers and an ongoing recession? Plus two intractable wars.

    Unfortunately, only through the pathetic performance of the Democrats in carrying though on the platform that we elected them to implement. Better do something fast. Better not be afraid to do something because you are going to get thumped this fall anyway. Hopefully, by the time 1012 comes along, what you do in the next 90 days will have positive effects that people will see and that you can claim credit for.

  3. Submitted by Ann Spencer on 01/20/2010 - 11:44 am.

    It’s important to remember that Massachusetts already has health care reform that was a model for the federal program now endangered by Brown’s election. It’s not that Massachusetts voters oppose reform; rather, having gotten theirs, they don’t want to subsidize similar reform for the rest of the country. (It’s not at all clear that they would, by the way. Federal subsidies for low-income people to purchase insurance would take that burden off Massachusetts. But never mind—it’s perception, not reality, that matters.)

    As for President Obama, depending on who you believe, his agenda is in trouble because a. he veered too far right (Afghanistan, continued aid to Wall Street, etc.) and lost his base b. he veered too far left (stimulus spending, health care reform) and lost the moderates and independents or c. both of the above. What a dilemma!

    The larger lesson, I think, is that people might vote for “change”, but when it comes right down to it, they’re deeply ambivalent about it, especially when times are tough and people are insecure. The over-riding concern becomes hanging on to what little you’ve got and not doing anything to make matters worse.

    Rarely, if ever, does a change in public policy immediately and unambiguously benefit everyone. In the short term, at least, there are always winners and losers. In order to mobilize opposition to something as sweeping as health care reform, opponents don’t have to prove that a particular group will lose; they merely have to suggest it as a possibility.

    Example: if, as I have read, 85% of people already have health coverage, and the majority are happy with it, those people must be convinced that health care reform will benefit them, or at the very least not hurt them via higher premiums, reduced coverage or both. Although President Obama repeatedly said that under HCR those who like their current plan can keep it, opponents responded, “yes, but his proposals don’t GUARANTEE that.” That’s all it took to create enough doubt that many people who already have coverage concluded that it’s best to just leave things alone. The same uncertainty has been raised about many of the bill’s other provisions. And so you have the declining support for reform that we see today. “Change you can believe in” is trumped by “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.” Selling change in an era of fear and uncertainty is very difficult indeed.

  4. Submitted by Brad Lundell on 01/20/2010 - 11:57 am.

    Three great posts and rather than reiterate, I’ll just say that appear to be in a nation gripped by fear right now. Uncertainty runs high and unlike the Great Depression, there is an identifiable “other” now posited against the “average” American. When you have a large number of Republicans believing Obama’s election wasn’t legitimate, things are bound to be difficult for the President. As said in one of the posts above, the Republicans seem to want to cling to a status quo (for themselves) that is likely unsustainable.

    I especially agree with Ann that change looks good on the menu, but it may challenge the palate when it hits the plate.

    The next ten years are going to be interesting.

  5. Submitted by Rebecca Hoover on 01/20/2010 - 12:40 pm.

    Realistically, both Quist and Marty have missed the boat. Martha Coakley is simply one of the worst and most vile candidates ever put on the ballot by the Democrats. Any candidate, who releases on his own recognizance someone charged with molesting a toddler with a curling iron, has terrible judgment at best. Similarly her vicious harrassment of an innocent man and woman for years, was viewed by Massachusetts voters as evil. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/casey-sherman/martha-coakley-democrat-d_b_427016.html

    I normally vote Democrat myself but I don’t know if I could have stomached voting for Coakley. I think not. I’m guessing that I would have stayed away from the polls.

    I do know that our country is best off as a whole when persons as evil as Martha Coakley are kept out of high public office.

  6. Submitted by Gregory Stricherz on 01/20/2010 - 12:45 pm.

    It’s really interesting to see how quickly the nonsense can be spread. Ann says “if, as I have read, 85% of people already have health coverage, and the majority are happy with it . . .” but does not tell us where she read that.

    It’s a number you are unlikely to find anyplace else. 85% approval for ANYTHING is almost unheard of. A Rasmussen Poll from last November found 32% of Mass residents considered the State health insurance plan a success, 36% considered it a failure: http://tinyurl.com/ylo5dsx

    Massachusetts voters voted for the Republican candidate precisely because they DON’T like their health care plan and they DON’T want the same thing on the national level. The idea that the voters did what they did because they don’t want to share is idiocy.

    And anybody who things that Obama’s health care plan and stimulus package are acceptable to liberals has no concept of what liberals want. John Marty’s plan for a single-payer universal health-care program is the kind of thing liberals support.

  7. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 01/20/2010 - 01:17 pm.

    The proposed legislation on health care reform has been crafted by individuals who do not understand health economics and do not care to. It does not address either of the two reasons for pursuing health care reform:
    1) coverage for all the remaining uninsured.
    2) reducing the extraordinary growth in health care costs.

    Policy structure matters. Could health care reform be positive, both economically and socially – I believe, yes. Mandating that individuals carry some type of insurance coverage (catastrophic, at the minimum) I think is justified given the negative externalizations that exist when large portions of the population do not.

    But the health care bill focuses almost entirely on providing generous insurance coverage; let us not forget that insurance is very inefficient finance. First-dollar coverage for health expenses through an insurance premium does not make sense. First $500 dollar coverage through an insurance premium probably does not make sense.

    Insurance pools do not lose money on premiums collected over the long term – there is no free lunch. And that’s precisely what this bill is looking for and claims to offer.

    This election result, I think, is the American people requesting a better-educated, more thoughtful, more thorough debate on how to go about achieving a better society rather than just ramming poorly conceived policy through today that may jeopardize that society in the longer term.

  8. Submitted by Joel Jensen on 01/20/2010 - 01:20 pm.

    If voters feel the “change” they voted for was diverted to others (big investment banks and others on Wall Street) it would seem counter productive to abandon one of the few items still on the agenda that could be seen as changing the lives of ordinary people for the better – health care reform.

    If anything should be stopped, or undone, or clawed back, it should be the hundreds of billions of our tax dollars (present and future) spent and the additional trillions pledged to bail out the criminals that operated the financial meth labs that brought us into this economic catastrophe.

    As far as the number of people affected by health care reform, it is rare to run into someone that even if they are still employed and covered by a group health plan doesn’t have someone near to them who has lost the job that carried their health benefits. The uncertainty and fragility of that benefit has become all too clear to many.

  9. Submitted by Ann Spencer on 01/20/2010 - 01:45 pm.

    To set the record straight: I did NOT say that 85% of Massachusetts residents have health insurance, nor did I say that 85% of anyone (Massachusetts residents or otherwise) like their health insurance. I did read online (I think it was in the New York Times) that 93% of Massachusetts residents now have health care coverage after reform.

    The figures that I referred to (contained in numerous sources, including the Gallup-Healthways-WellBeing poll of July 2009) indicate that 84% of all Americans have health care coverage. A June Washington-Post ABC News poll, quoted in a Washington Post article on July 28, 2009, found that 81% of respondents in that poll were satisfied with their health insurance.

    I hope that clears things up.

  10. Submitted by T J Simplot on 01/20/2010 - 02:16 pm.

    Rep. Bachman and Mr. Sutton are reacting exactly how I hoped they wouldn’t.

    In my opinion, the people of Mass. did not want one party running the show so they voted in a Republican. That doesn’t mean they want a Republican run government, they just want some balance.

    I would have hoped that Rep. Bachman and Mr. Sutton would acknowledge that they also got the message that people want things done but without all the partisanship.

  11. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/20/2010 - 02:17 pm.

    Typical. Whenever I think I’ve seen the limits of the Democrats ability to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory they manage to surprise me again. Instead of jumping out of the gate with the health care plan that Obama ran on, they started having meetings. Instead of saving homes they saved the banks. Once again, screwed by the Democrats. It’s almost like they deliberately delayed getting anything done until they lost their majority. Now they have an even better excuse for not doing anything. Status Quo rejoice!

  12. Submitted by Ann Spencer on 01/20/2010 - 02:23 pm.

    Further clarification: Per the New York Times, 97% (not 93%) of Massachusetts residents now have health insurance coverage.

  13. Submitted by Dean Carlson on 01/20/2010 - 02:49 pm.

    Only in Washington, D.C.


  14. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 01/20/2010 - 03:51 pm.

    If the Dems had realized from the beginning that they could use the fact that 65 percent of the American public wants single-payer universal health care, they could have forgotten about trying to please Republicans that had already decided to vote against ANY plan produced by the Democrats. Instead, they repeated the falsehood that America is “not ready” for single payer and barred it from all discussions, preferring to talk only with those they called the “stakeholders” (What? 65% of us are not stakeholders?) and trying to woo Republican votes with bribes that included killing features like the public option.

    I’d guess that a ton of Massachusetts’ Democratic and independent voters agree with me and may even have voted for the Republican candidate in order to stop in its tracks the Senate plan so disastrously modeled after the failing MassPlan.

    My recommendation to Congress is that they use their 60 votes RIGHT NOW THIS MINUTE to pass HR-676 or S-703 in the Senate. Either will have no trouble passing in the House.

    The question of passing the messy, complex, public and private bureaucracy-building, and extremely expensive Senate plan would become moot.

    Gotta go send some e-mails.

  15. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 01/20/2010 - 06:11 pm.

    I second Bernice’s suggestion. Push that sucker through RIGHT NOW THIS MINUTE.

  16. Submitted by Gregory Stricherz on 01/20/2010 - 07:43 pm.

    On a less sarcastic note than Thomas, I also agree with Bernice. It’s what this country needs.

  17. Submitted by Judy Borger on 01/20/2010 - 07:59 pm.

    I can’t help but think that if a woman had posed nude for a men’s magazine to pay for law school, then run for U.S. Senate the opposition would have branded her as anti-family values at best, or a porn queen.

    That said, Coakley seems to have been an exceptionally poor candidate running against an ill-defined opponent. Did Massachusetts voters have any real choice?

    Ted Kennedy left an even bigger void than anyone realized.

    Shhhh. What’s the sound? I think it’s all the Kennedy’s turning over in their graves.

  18. Submitted by Bill Coleman on 01/20/2010 - 08:28 pm.

    Thomas likes our health care system. Twice the cost and half the results. By any measure the status quo defenders would like to propose, our health care system comes up short.

    The right wingers only like to use cost-effectiveness and benchmarking for things like public education. They cringe at the idea of bringing these types of measures into our health care debate.

  19. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 01/21/2010 - 06:39 am.

    Well, the Bush years were no picnic for America, but I knew that the democrats would shoot themselves in the foot. They always do.

    Why? Because they, like the Republicans, tend to let the fringe element run roughshod over the more moderate members of their party.

  20. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/21/2010 - 08:48 am.

    I couldn’t disagree more with Mr. Schulze. There’s nothing the slightest bit “fingey” about the Democrats, that’s the problem. They are completely incapable of seeing beyond the status quo, even when they’re lives depend on it. People voted for change, we rolled the dice and dared to hope that we wouldn’t get the old Democrat bait and switch again. What’d we get? They changed a light bulb somewhere and called it a night. Of course the other factor is simply the fact that at the end of the day, for all his faults, strengths, eccentricities, Nader is right when he call this country a corporatocracy. Beyond their middlism, and investment in the status quo, the Democrats are serving their corporate sponsors, who are making so much money off the status quo. Alexander Cockburn makes some nice observations and predictions in his piece over on “Counterpunch”:

  21. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 01/21/2010 - 10:14 am.

    @ 20 Paul: And yet here we are… It makes make admire (to a degree) the discipline of the GOP. All the real problems lay ahead, and people aren’t going to like the inevitable solutions.

  22. Submitted by David Willard on 01/24/2010 - 01:18 am.

    Liberals or Progressives tend to blame “anger” or hatred if their policies are not adopted quickly. It is that lack of debate that turns a lot of people off.

  23. Submitted by Mark Davis on 01/27/2010 - 01:15 pm.

    Before we jump to conclusion about the Massachusetts result we need to understand that many Obama (and progressive) voters stayed home. They are frustrated by lack of real change, the bailout of the rich, and continued obstruction big business lobbyists (perhaps you caught Frontline yesterday, or listened to Michael Moore on Democracy Now, or saw his movie). Add that to the RWingnuts who call Obama a socialist (way off the mark and not even close, they would not even know a socialist if they all had labels, Obama is free market Neo-liberal in the Clinton mode) and their obstruction to any compromised health care reform and of course everyone in frustrated and alienated. Perhaps, as Moore says we should let this health care bill go. It is not progressive and does not provide anything close to universal coverage.

    Secondly, polls of Massachusetts voters before and after indicated that they support a strong and robust public option (much like the state plan). Brown’s election is a freak. The failure is the Democrats not really acting for change. Don’t expect anything different the Republicans. The gentleman named Paul related Nader’s comments, I ditto them!

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