Did Democrats outsmart themselves in Massachusetts?

When Ted Kennedy died on August 25, 2009, Massachusetts law required the state to hold a special election to fill the opening he left in the US Senate.  That law was put in place by the state legislature in 2004 when John Kerry ran for President, and it was championed by Ted Kennedy himself.  Why?  The governor at the time, Mitt Romney, was a Republican — and Kennedy didn’t want Romney appointing an interim replacement that wasn’t a Democrat.

Fast forward five years, to when Kennedy was days away from death.  The Kennedy family released a letter written by the Senator demanding that the law he pushed in 2004 get repealed in 2009 in order to allow Governor Deval Patrick to appoint his successor.  Why?  Patrick is a Democrat and a reliable liberal who would select someone in Kennedy’s mold.  The state legislature responded by acceding to Kennedy’s dying wish and Patrick appointed Paul Kirk to fill Kennedy’s seat temporarily, until the special election could be held.

This all seemed to go by plan for the Democrats.  They had ensured ideological continuity of the seat, and more importantly gave Harry Reid back his 60th vote for cloture, which allowed Reid and Obama to press forward with their plans to overhaul the American health-care system.  All they would need is to keep Kirk in place until Massachusetts sent another Kennedy protege to the Senate.

But did they outsmart themselves?  The special election date was the earliest possible date, as I recall, but the continued focus on ObamaCare came directly from the Democrats’ insistence on changing the Massachusetts law so that Patrick could appoint Kirk to the seat.  Without that, the seat would have remained vacant — and Reid and Obama would have been forced to put ObamaCare aside and start working on the economy, especially in November, after the House finally passed its version.  It would have given Reid and Obama an excuse to suspend the effort, and make the special election a referendum on health-care reform as a concept, rather than the specifics of the proposal that came out of the Senate.

Most of all, it would have eliminated the back-room dealings and dishonesty that has become so apparent over the last four weeks — which could have saved Ben Nelson’s bacon, for one.

The decision to press the Massachusetts state legislature for that blatantly self-serving change may have ironically enabled the Democrats to badly overreach — creating the impulse that is lifting Scott Brown over Martha Coakley in Massachusetts, and Republicans over Democrats nationwide.  And Democrats have no one but themselves to blame for it.