- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Lots of ink will be spilled and plenty of pixels will be generated in response to yesterday’s special Senate election here in Massachusetts, and I don’t have any deep and novel insights to offer. After all, this is a blog about foreign policy, not domestic politics, and foreign policy appears to have played little or no role in the outcome.
I also think it is a mistake to read too much into an outcome that could easily have gone the other way for reasons that have nothing to do with the issues and structural forces at work (i.e., had Coakley bothered to campaign in a serious way). The other reason to take a deep breath and relax is the pendulum-like nature of American politics: remember how cool and popular George Bush looked in that flight suit on "Mission Accomplished" day? Remember how hapelss he appeared a couple of years later? One other observation: this election also preserved the surprising and dubious tendency for "liberal" Massachusetts to not elect women to high office. What’s up with that?
That said, I think there are two important lessons that Dems should draw from yesterday’s result, and especially any Dems who happen to live and work at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The first lesson is the politics didn’t stop on Inauguration Day. The Obama administration ran a great campaign, and did an excellent job of framing issues and defining their candidate throughout 2008. Once in office, however, they turned immediately from politics to policy — and there is a difference — while the GOP did exactly the reverse. Instead of continuing to frame issues and establish a clear narrative about what they were accomplishing, the Dems have let the GOP attack machine construct a wholly fictitious but effective narrative that clearly helped Brown in Massachusetts. (Again, the fact that Coakley offered no clear story of her own was a huge liability too.)
The second lesson, and one I’ve harped about before, is about the dangers of trying to do too much, and without a clear strategy. In retrospect, Obama and the Dems would have been better off had they attempted a lot less in the past year, and gotten some of it done a lot quicker. Did Obama really need to jet off to Europe to try to get the Olympics for Chicago, or show up at a climate change summit that wasn’t going to yield an agreement? Was it a good idea to raise everyone’s expectations about Middle East peace, when your team hadn’t thought through its strategy and when you didn’t have the political courage to do what was necessary to bring it about? Why talk about getting rid of nuclear weapons when everyone knows that isn’t going to happen for decades? And why betray your own base by doubling down in Afghanistan, largely in the hope of deflecting GOP criticism?
Back last spring, when Obama seemed to be launching a new initiative every other day, political theorist and former Clinton advisor William Galston warned that "If he’s right, our traditional notion of the limits of the possible — the idea that Washington can only handle so much at one time — will be blown to smithereens. If he’s wrong, he may be cruising for a bruising on a lot of things." I think it is way too soon to write the Obama presidency off, but he took a few lumps yesterday. The real question is his administration’s learning curve, and whether he starts replacing the people who’ve given him bad advice over the past year.