The buck stops … Well, it was hard to tell just where the buck stopped Tuesday as Democrats in Boston and Washington began dodging blame and pointing fingers at each other even before the first returns were in.
Cool-headed analysis of what was driving independents to Republican Scott Brown’s column? No. The issue was who botched Democrat Martha Coakley’s Senate campaign more: her state people or national Democrats.
Most spoke the classic Washington way, under the cloak of anonymity. But President Barack Obama’s senior adviser took precise, public aim at Coakley’s camp as Brown closed in on the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s seat.
“I think the White House did everything we were asked to do,” David Axelrod told reporters. “Had we been asked earlier, we would have responded earlier.”
But the signs had been there. In the bluest of blue states, the election was seen, at least in part, as a referendum on Obama, on health care reform, on the Democratic majority that had controlled two of three branches of government for a year.
And the Republican candidate was surging.
What of Obama himself?
“Surprised and frustrated,” reported White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, promising more presidential reaction Wednesday. “Not pleased.”
Democrats could agree on the obvious: Somebody had taken the seat for granted, had underestimated the public’s anger over the economy, over the Democrats’ health care overhaul, over plain old arrogance in Washington.
Coakley pollster Celinda Lake acknowledged some missteps on the part of the campaign, such as failing to have enough money to go on the air early on to more sharply define Brown. But she said the problem was Washington and the Democratic Party. And she said the president’s effort to overhaul health care was not defined enough to earn the support of some voters.
Disgust with Democrats runs so deep, Lake said, that the Coakley campaign was unable to persuade voters that the candidate had spent her career as a prosecutor going after Wall Street.
“People didn’t believe it, and they didn’t vote for her becase they think the Democrats in Washington are not putting up economic policies that serve Main Street and working families,” she said.
Retorted a White House ally:
“If they thought there was a problem with health care or the nationalization of the race, why did they ask the president to come campaign for her?” asked the operative, who demanded anonymity to speak about internal party sniping.
For a week, high-level Democratic operatives panned Coakley’s performance as so weak that even a personal appearance by Obama couldn’t save her. The White House joined in Tuesday while people were still voting in Massachusetts, blaming Coakley and dismissing the notion that the toxic political environment had been a factor.
Coakley’s campaign fired back in a point-by-point memo that blamed that very environment.
And, her aides added, if Coakley took the seat for granted, so did the high priests of the national party — the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic National Committee. Her lead, Coakley’s supporters argued, dropped significantly after the Senate passed health care reform shortly before Christmas, and even more after the Christmas Day attempted bombing in Detroit that Obama himself said was a failure of his administration.
“DNC and other Dem organizations did not engage until the week before the election, much too late to aid Coakley campaign,” read one bullet point by a campaign operative brought in to work on the campaign. Please don’t pass this on, the adviser wrote.
“I’m not looking to get in a (fight) with the White House, but neither do I want to get steamrolled,” this adviser wrote.
“A pack full of lies and fantasies,” shot back a senior national party official quoted by The Huffington Post. “The candidate in this race and the campaign have been involved in the worst case of political malpractice in memory and they aren’t going to be able to spin themselves out of this with a memo full of lies.”
Brown, a state senator, waged a door-to-door campaign that capitalized on voter dissatisfaction. He turned his pickup truck with 200,000 miles on it into a symbol of his workmanlike effort. He launched the campaign’s ad war on Dec. 30 with a spot that commandeered the political potency of the Kennedy name. It opened with black-and-white footage of Kennedy’s brother, President John F. Kennedy, arguing for an across-the-board tax cut. Then it cut to Brown finishing the speech.
All this as Coakley, the state attorney general, paused.
After winning a four-way primary with 47 percent of the vote, Coakley cut back on her appearances and disappeared entirely Christmas week, confident she needed only community and political activists and their networks in what was projected to be a low-turnout special election.
When she re-emerged, it wasn’t to shake hands or rally supporters, but to sit on the stage at inaugurations for newly elected Democratic mayors. There was no stump speech, only press releases. And she balked at debates.
In a span of weeks, Brown had erased Coakley’s double-digit lead.
The Democratic establishment in Washington snapped to attention, airlifting so many aides from Washington to help Coakley that after a while, her own campaign officials hardly recognized anyone walking around headquarters.
In the end, the verdict may not entirely be about any one party member or candidate.
“The Democrats have the White House. The Democrats have the Senate, as well,” said Griffin Smith, 24, a teacher, who voted for Obama last year. “I would like to have more of a checks-and-balance system.”
Associated Press writers Glen Johnson in Boston, Beth Fouhy in New York and Bob Salsberg in Fitchburg, Mass., contributed to this report.