Voter anger management

Seeing a Republican win his beloved seat in the U.S. Senate would have been tough for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) to take. But seeing a Democrat take winning it for granted would have been far worse for the man who described, in his posthumously published autobiography, that after nearly 50 years he still could not approach the U.S. Capitol without the hair standing up on his arms.

Martha Coakley lost her quest to fill the seat held by Kennedy and his brother Jack Kennedy since 1953 because she thought it would be easy. To say she took the seat, and her campaign, for granted is an understatement. But President Barack Obama and the national party apparatus also share in the blame.

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Coakley ignored that campaigning means asking voters for their support; she made only one-third the number of campaign stops her opponent — Sen.-elect Scott Brown (R) — made. Coakley ignored that Massachusetts had never elected a woman senator or governor. Coakley ignored that healthcare reform was unpopular nationally and in the Bay State, where voters already had their healthcare reformed. Coakley ignored the history of Massachusetts electing Republicans once in a while, ignoring that the likable and shrewd Brown — who ran away from the GOP — was just the kind of Republican who could win. Finally, Coakley didn’t accept that voters would see her as an incumbent tied to the unpopular Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick, Obama’s buddy.

The Democratic Party joined Coakley in ignoring the huge population of unaffiliated voters in Massachusetts. While there may be a 3-1 Democratic advantage in voter registration, roughly half of the voters there consider themselves neither Democrat nor Republican. Independents supported Obama and helped him win the presidency but are now voting against Democrats and helped defeat them in gubernatorial elections in November in New Jersey and Virginia. These independent voters are angry and highly motivated, in case Democrats hadn’t noticed.

Democrats could have paid attention to what retiring Democrats are telling them about why they can’t stand for reelection back home in places like Tennessee and Arkansas, where voters are furious and turning on Democrats. They also could have paid attention to Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.), who lost to Coakley in the Dec. 8 primary. When he returned to tell his House colleagues what he had seen and heard on the campaign trail, he used only two words: “You’re screwed.”

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The White House team will seek comfort in criticizing Coakley, since after all, both President Obama and healthcare reform are more popular than Coakley in Massachusetts. But anger at Coakley won’t help Democrats deal with the anger directed at their party.

As Coakley was going down last week, the White House seemed to acknowledge the brewing frustration and proposed a fee on banks. The new message, according to White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, was that “people are going to have to decide whether the people they have in Washington are on the side of protecting the big banks, whether they’re on the side of protecting the big oil companies, whether they’re on the side of protecting insurance companies, or whether they are on the people’s side.”

It would have been a good message nine months ago, before the stimulus package began receiving poor reviews, 9 percent unemployment was clearly heading to 10 percent and Obama started losing independent voters. But the Tea Party was born and this week it came full circle to Boston. It will follow the rage anywhere it leads. The Democrats, and their never-angry leader, must accept and engage what voters are feeling as soon as possible. They cannot lead, and don’t deserve to lead, if they don’t.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.