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Scott Brown's Surge Boosted by Dems' Failed Health Care Message

(AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
"Time and again, the American people have suffered because people in Washington played the politics of the moment instead of putting the interests of the American people first. That's how we ended up with premiums rising three times faster than wages. That's how we ended up with businesses choosing between shedding benefits and shutting their doors. That's how we've been burdened with runaway costs and huge gaps in coverage. That's the status quo. That's what we have right now. And the American people understand that the status quo is unacceptable. They don't care who's up or who's down politically in Washington. They care about what's going on in their own lives. They don't care about the latest line of political attack. They care about whether their families will be crushed by rising premiums; whether the businesses they work for will have to cut jobs; or whether their children are going to be saddled with debt."

-- President Barack Obama, July 21, 2009, from the White House Rose Garden.

Yet in Massachusetts today, Republican Scott Brown is surging against Democrat Martha Coakley in the special election to fill the Senate seat formerly held by Ted Kennedy. Ted Kennedy – the champion of health care reform. The liberal stalwart. The legacy of Camelot.

Brown's running to send the health care legislation "back to the drawing board," and he's pledging to be the additional vote the Republicans need to prevent the bill from coming to floor for passage in the Senate. Basically, Brown's running to stop health care reform: "I'm looking forward to having the opportunity to being the 41st vote," he said in a recent debate.

So how did this happen? How did the president's rallying against the status quo lead to situation where a Republican candidate, basically running for the status quo, could win a Senate seat long held by the soul of the Democratic Party, in the blue state of Massachusetts? Special Report: Obama's First Year Special Report: Health Care

That's going to be the number one question tomorrow in Washington if Brown wins the special election today.

Part of it can be explained by recent polling. In the latest CBS News poll, 41 percent of respondents think that the health system would get better if health care reform passes. But, 49 percent think it would have no impact or get worse. That's pretty striking. If you look at what the president said in July, and said dozens and dozens of time last year –- that health care reform is essential to help Americans who are struggling with high costs of health care, who fear of losing coverage and who have been denied coverage because of a pre-existing condition –- it's clear now that that message didn't stick.

Could it be that many more Americans aren't worried about health care than are -– that the economy is the big issue? That may be true, and that is certainly what the Republicans would like you to believe. The White House has tried to define health care as an economic issue, both for the average American struggling with finances, as well as for the federal government's bottom line. But that message didn't stick. Why? Obamacare.

When Congress left for its August recess without having finished a health care bill, the void was filled with angry protests at town halls around the country. The opposition to health care reform, the Republicans in Congress (one of whom declared that stopping health care would be Obama's "Waterloo"), were able to define the bill as a government takeover of health care. So while health care reform was once a popular idea, a strong campaign pledge by the new president and a rallying point for Democrats for years, it was lost in the political messaging, defined by the opposition, and buried in rhetoric and bad information.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was asked if the president was frustrated by the turn of events, how his signature issue has become so divisive: "Do I think an outsized number of issues that have exceedingly little to do with the real scope of the bill have taken up most of people's times and imagination? Undoubtedly. Undoubtedly," he said. "That's not to say that it wasn't time -- it was -- overall, the issue of health care wasn't well spent."

More on the Massachusetts Senate Race:
Brown Vs. Coakley: It's All About Enthusiasm
Brown, Coakley and the Supermajority
Coakley Trails Brown in Bellwether Polls
Obama's Agenda Hangs on Mass. Senate Race

Gibbs went on, saying that the White House believes Coakley will win, and health care reform will pass. "And look, once the bill passes, the president will spend a lot of time talking about what's in that bill," he said. "The minute he signs that bill into law, a child with a pre-existing condition will be able to get health insurance for the first time in that child's life. That's a big deal for that person. That's a big deal for that family."

The problem for the White House has been that many Americans don't believe that health care reform will help them. And now more people oppose it then favor it. The promise of health care reform has become a political albatross, emboldening opposition and scaring moderates in their own party. What they hoped would be a huge rallying point, a major success that's evaded presidents for decades, and a huge accomplishment to go into the midterm elections with, has become a bogeyman — hurting more than helping.

Back to the main question: How did this happen?

"They assumed that something popular in the abstract would be popular in the details," said Marc Ambinder, of the Atlantic and a CBS News Consultant. "And they failed to respond to real concerns that a major health bill from Washington would alter the health coverage that most Americans have and generally approve of."

But in the end, real fears over the economy and the failure of the White House's argument that health care reform would help the middle class, took hold in the debate.

"The economy smothered everything," said Ambinder, "and they were too deferential to everyone, not creating an enemy out of the insurance companies until it was too late."

Robert Hendin is a CBS News White House producer. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here.