Washington (AP) - Reeling from the loss of a long-held Massachusetts Senate seat, Democrats are rethinking the lessons of Barack Obama's 2008 election, with the GOP suggesting they scale back their ambitions and agenda.
Republican Scott Brown's win in a liberal state will do more than vastly complicate Obama's bid to overhaul the U.S. health care system. It will send his party into a painful re-examination of voters' anger and desires ahead of the November elections for Congress, governorships and state legislatures.
Questions will include whether Americans really want more government help in matters such as obtaining health insurance, even though Obama campaigned on that very issue.
Most immediately, Brown's win Tuesday over Martha Coakley to replace the late Edward M. Kennedy will deprive Democrats of a filibuster-proof Senate majority. That could kill the Democrats' effort to revamp health care unless House Democrats reluctantly embrace a previously passed Senate version that many of them dislike. It would require no new Senate action, although liberal groups might be furious.
Gleeful Republicans warned against such a move. The message from Massachusetts, said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., is: "Go back to the drawing board" on health care.
Democrats didn't go quite that far, but some were clearly chastened.
"In many ways the campaign in Massachusetts became a referendum not only on health care reform but also on the openness and integrity of our government process," said Sen. James Webb, D-Va. He urged that "we suspend further votes on health care legislation until Sen.-elect Brown is seated."
Democrats may spend months trying to divine the lessons of Tuesday's setback. Many of them saw the 2008 election as a repudiation of George W. Bush's presidency, with Obama as the fresh new leader promising to harness the government to expand health coverage, discipline banks and stimulate the moribund economy.
But Brown's victory suggests that many voters still harbor suspicions or outright resentment of the federal government, no matter who's in charge.
Conservatives, perhaps sensing the mood better than liberals, have accused Obama of Big Brotherism and even socialism as he pushes his health plan and pours billions of dollars into economic stimulus programs.
The president rightly notes that he campaigned precisely on those issues. But that's small comfort to nervous and perplexed Democratic lawmakers who now expect stiff anti-incumbent winds in November and heightened GOP attacks against big government.
It's unclear how much Democrats will change their tactics.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said his colleagues will continue to blame the previous administration for driving the economy "into a ditch" and running away.
The Senate's Democratic campaign chief, Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, seemed more humble. "We will sort through the lessons of Massachusetts," he said, including "the need to show that our commitment to real change is as powerful as it was in 2008."
American voters rejected Republican control in the 2006 congressional elections and the 2008 presidential election. Democrats widely assumed that a top priority, and a winning political issue, was to make health insurance more accessible and competitive.
But now, just 14 months later, voters are snarling at the Democrats they put in charge, leaving them to wonder how to expand services without invoking public wrath.
John Triolo, a Massachusetts independent who voted for Obama in 2008 and for Brown on Tuesday, exemplified the confusing message.
"I voted for Obama because I wanted change," said Triolo, 38, a sales manager from Fitchburg. "I wanted change, I thought he'd bring it to us, but I just don't like the direction that he's heading."
Everyone should have health coverage, Triolo said, "but I think we should take the time to look at it, but not ram it down our throat."
Obama may be as puzzled as anyone by his party's inability to keep the seat held by Kennedy, a liberal icon, for nearly a half-century. The president was "surprised and frustrated" by the course of the Coakley-Brown contest, spokesman Robert Gibbs said before polling places closed Tuesday.
Democrats were dismayed last November to see the GOP take over the governorships of New Jersey and Virginia, states that Obama had carried the year before. Tuesday's results were more painful and troubling.
Massachusetts is among the nation's most liberal states, and the candidates made it clear that a Brown victory could kill the Democrats' health care push in the Senate.
Democrats now must ask: Did Massachusetts voters register their discontent based on a decent understanding of the complex health care legislation? Or did conservatives do a better job of framing and spinning the debate, starting with raucous public meetings in August that caught Democrats flat-footed?
The latest AP-GfK poll showed an even split between Americans who support the health care package and those who oppose it. But Republican lawmakers say Brown's victory proves that public intensity and momentum are on their side.
If Democrats can find any solace in Tuesday's results, it's this: Massachusetts pollsters detected a strong anti-incumbent mood among voters, which could hurt Republican officeholders as well as Democrats in November.
Associated Press writer Bob Salsberg in Fitchburg, Mass., contributed to this report.
Republican Scott Brown's win in a liberal state will send the Democrat Party into a painful re-examination of voters' anger and desires ahead of the November elections for Congress, governorships and state legislatures.