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View from Washington Coakley Effect

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At the beginning of last week, the White House press corps questioned press secretary Robert Gibbs about why President Barack Obama was not scheduled to join Massachusetts attorney general Martha Coakley to campaign for what has almost inexplicably become a toss-up race to fill the seat of the late U.S. senator Ted Kennedy.

Should she win Tuesday, Coakley would be the 60th vote needed to pass health reform, and she also happens to be staunchly pro-LGBT, having filed the sole lawsuit on behalf of a state challenging the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

But her campaign has left a little something to be desired and Republican Scott Brown, who counts being a former Cosmo centerfold among his many credentials for representing the Bay State, has managed to make the race a dead heat. (BTW, does anyone really believe that if Coakley -- or any woman for that matter -- had once posed as a centerfold, they could be a viable candidate for the U.S. Senate?)

So when one reporter asked why the president wasn't going and Gibbs offered, "It's just not on our schedule," no self-respecting journalist was going to stop there.

"All right, then why is it not on the schedule?" the reporter persisted.

Gibbs: "It's just not on the schedule."

"Has he been asked by the Coakley campaign to come?"

Gibbs: "Not that I'm aware of."

"Has he been asked to stay away?"

Gibbs: "Not that I'm aware of." [Laughter]

It went on, but you get the idea. Predictably, the White House changed its tune by the end of the week, and President Obama did indeed campaign alongside Coakley on Sunday.

Bottom line, the stakes are too high not to at least try, especially with the term "reconciliation" creeping back into the Washington lexicon at the thought of Democrats losing their 60th vote on health care. (Reconciliation is a procedural maneuver that would allow Dems to pass certain portions of health reform with only 50 votes -- but it wouldn't be pretty, to say the least).

Turns out the Coakley race is not only key to bagging health reform so Democrats can finally pivot toward other legislation, but it also might serve as a bellwether for Dems on social issues. That reality was apparently a point of discussion at the emergency meeting called by major donors and the LGBT lobby groups last week in order to strategize about repealing "don't ask, don't tell."

Many in the room lamented that the political climate is not good for pushing a pro-equality agenda right now. "If she loses, all bets are off," said one attendee of the meeting. "The Democrats will stay away from social issues, and focus like a laser beam on jobs."

Part of that has to do with the grim state of the nation's economy, the paltry jobs numbers that emerged this month, and the fact that every political analyst who is worth a damn is predicting that Democrats could lose at least 20-30 seats in the House and a handful of seats in the Senate. Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report gives Senate Dems "a 50-50 chance of ending up with fewer than 55 seats in the next Congress."

The other part of the equation is that LGBT issues and same-sex marriage, in particular, were suddenly thrust into the state of play in the race over the weekend when robo-calls sponsored by the National Organization for Marriage emerged asking people whether they supported marriage being defined as between a man and a woman. If people answered "yes," they were encouraged to vote for Scott Brown in Tuesday's election.

But LGBT equality wasn't the only social issue targeted. The Huffington Post reported that the Mass Citizens for Life political action group sent out mailers urging voters to "Save The Babies!" by voting for Scott Brown.

While ginning up social conservatives may garner a few more votes for the GOP, the idea that social issues have actually hurt Martha Coakley in Massachusetts -- the first state to embrace marriage equality, a state that was represented by someone affectionately called "the liberal lion of the Senate" for nearly half a century -- is sheer lunacy. A Democratic loss in Coakley's race will signal nothing short of a serious enthusiasm gap, not a backlash against social progressivism.

But Democrats do own the economy now and they have spent the better part of their first year passing health reform legislation that at best is poorly understood by the American public and at worst is seen as a liberal boondoggle. Unfortunately, people who fall into both of those camps don't see how any of it is immediately relevant to them when they can't pay the mortgage on their home or put enough food on the table to fill the stomachs of their children.

That is, no doubt, where Dems will have to focus this year. The question is, Can they walk and chew gum at the same time? Will they be able to generate jobs and tackle issues like immigration reform, climate change, and LGBT equality?

One of the most telling conversations I had with an attendee of that closed-door LGBT meeting centered around fact that the community doesn't have a high-level adviser in the White House who feels LGBT issues to the core of their being. Because of that, this person noted, there's no overarching architecture for passing LGBT legislation amid the intricate web of White House planning. Thus, every gay item is essentially a one-off, and once it's passed, the community has to start from scratch to find a new opening for the next item.

"Did we as a community do something wrong when we gave lot of money, made demands about very specific legislation, but we didn't get ourselves a power broker on the inside?" the person questioned, betraying a hint of regret inside players sometimes display upon realizing the limits of their influence. "We may have won some battles but lost the war because we didn't get a powerful passionate advocate at the upper levels."

Many of the brokers at that meeting worked extremely hard to get Barack Obama elected and then counseled patience in the LGBT community because of the enormity of pressing items that needed to be addressed: the stimulus, Afghanistan, health reform. But the meeting itself was a sudden acknowledgment that the clock is ticking and perhaps running out on LGBT issues.

In actuality, health reform was not a requirement, it was an elective by administration officials -- who surely told LGBT leaders that equality would find daylight once health care was put to bed. It is also the initiative that dominated last year and continues to eclipse all else this year.

And now we find that the exclusive focus on health reform has disillusioned the public as well as demoralized the progressive base because its mandates are so weak -- that is the cautionary tale of Coakley.

Wouldn't it be ironic if health reform, the issue many LGBT leaders said must pass before the community pushed more fervently for equality, became the stumbling block to every other progressive agenda item in Obama's first term (not to assume a second one)?

Keep your eyes trained on Massachusetts Tuesday. If Coakley loses, it will be a sign of things to come in 2010.

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