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Tuesday's Five Lessons for the Democrats—A Commentary by Aaron Zelinsky ’10

The following commentary was posted on The Huffington Post on January 20, 2010.

Tuesday's Five Lessons for the Democrats
By Aaron Zelinsky ’10

On Tuesday, the Bay State shook Capitol Hill to its core. Much ink will be spilled dissecting Mr. Brown's come-from-behind victory of Red Sox 2004 proportions.

Here are the five lessons Democrats should learn from this special election:

1) There Is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch. The Democrats got caught sleeping. Ms. Coakley ran a lackluster campaign which failed to energize even the bluest of the blue. Replacing the Lion of the Senate with Adlai Stevenson in a skirt was no plan for victory. (In truth, that's unfair to Mr. Stevenson, who was at least a certifiable egghead). In November, every Democratic candidate must campaign hard. The Democrats need candidates who want to run, not just those who want to win.

2) Calm Down. There will no doubt be an orgy of hand-wringing, finger-pointing, and teeth-gnashing within the Democratic Party. However, the Democrats shouldn't act rashly: they are still the governing party, and governing takes a cool head. Most of all, Democrats shouldn't make glib off-the-cuff remarks that could come back to haunt them. The Republicans will record every angry public internecine statement and replay them ad nauseum in November.

Expressing anger at the voters is a particularly bad idea--that won't play well with anyone. While this election is undoubtedly a major setback for the Democrats, they still have large majorities in both houses of Congress and control the Presidency. All is not lost.

3) Compromise Is the New Change. Democrats need to get results. Having the "magic 60" made the Democrats overconfident, and enabled the outer reaches of the party to demand more than was politically feasible.

In truth, a filibuster-proof majority isn't all it's cracked up to be. Just ask the last President who had one: Jimmy Carter. There are Republicans the Democrats can, and should, work with. Senators Graham, Snow, and Voinovich have a record of bipartisanship that the Democrats should tap.

4) Narrative Counts. Mr. Brown did an excellent job of setting the dominant narrative of the campaign: a lone man driving his truck, fighting against the massive Democratic machine. The Democrats did not effectively counter this narrative and so lost the all-critical paradigm-battle.

To put this in familiar terminology of our common cultural touchstone, Star Wars: In 2008, the Democrats made the election all about The New Hope. In 2010, The Republicans turned the Massachusetts election into Return of the Jedi (with Mr. Brown's pickup truck as a stand-in for the Millennium Falcon). The last thing the Democrats want is for voters to think November 2010 is The Empire Strikes Back.

5) The Republicans Aren't as United as They Appear. To listen to some Democrats, the Republicans are a vast conspiracy, moving in synchronized lockstep discipline. The Democrats should not forget that the Republicans are deeply fractured.

Mr. Brown managed to assemble an impressive coalition of Tea Partiers, Republicans, and moderate Democrats. However, there are strong centrifugal forces at work in the Republican Party. The more extreme members of the Republican Party will be emboldened by this election and will attempt to swing their party hard right. The Democrats should court the middle. Even Mr. Brown will have to tack center if he hopes to be reelected in 2012; he can only ride his constituent's agita so far.

There is one American politician who would have been unsurprised by Mr. Brown's election. James Madison recognized that in a country as vast and complicated as the United States, governing coalitions were inherently unstable, composed of a variety of conflicting constituencies. For centuries, the ebb and flow of support has been a natural consequence of holding power. It's no coincidence that midterm elections tend to go poorly for governing party. This is not the end for the Democrats; dealt with properly, it's a chance to recalibrate effectively.

The Democrats must recognize that Tuesday's election is only Armageddon if they make it so. Now is not the time for recriminations and anger; it's time to govern.