College professors always lay out a syllabus for the semester. They give students a sense of what material they’ll cover and when to study up for exams. Especially midterms and the final. But you never knew when there was going to be a pop quiz. 

For Congress, this fall’s midterm elections are actually the final exam. And with public support starting to wane for Democrats, they began hitting the books in early January to study up for November.

And then professor Scott Brown slapped them with a pop quiz nearly two weeks ago.

The upset election of Sen.-elect Scott Brown (R-MA) wasn’t on the syllabus. And its thrown the entire semester into turmoil as Congressional Democrats head to the library, enroll in study groups and hire tutors. Even though they’ve been working diligently, Brown’s victory made Democrats realize they might not have as good a grasp on the material as they thought just a few short weeks ago.

The pop quiz did for Democrats what pop quizzes do for students. Pop quizzes are only worth a handful of points. So if you’re on your game, students will pass the pop quiz with passing colors. For students who bomb, the quiz docks those slackers a few points, but doesn’t ruin their grade for the semester. And it serves as a wake-up call that they had better buckle down for the rest of the term.

Like a pop quiz in school, Brown’s election doesn’t mean Democrats will miss the honor roll. And like a bad performance on a pop quiz shaves only a few points off your final grade, it only cost Democrats one Senate seat, not control of Congress. But Democrats know that they have work together. Otherwise, Democrats could find themselves on academic probation. If not kicked out of school, altogether.

But the Scott Brown pop quiz could be the best thing that’s happened to Democrats.

“Brown’s election was like Clinton’s midterm election in 1994,” a senior House Democratic aide whispered to me. “This was our midterm.”

The 1994 midterm elections were a disaster for Democrats. In the middle of President Clinton’s first term, Republicans flattened Democrats, scooping up control of the House and the Senate in a watershed election. Republicans defeated 34 Democratic House incumbents, including former House Speaker Tom Foley (D-WA). The House witnessed an extraordinary 54-seat swing as Republicans seized control of the House for the first time since 1954.

And the Republican landslide proved to be the best thing that ever happened to Bill Clinton.

The GOP victory accomplished three things. First, it served as a wakeup call for the former president. Secondly, it moved Mr. Clinton to the middle and enabled him to find common ground with Republicans. And third, it gave the president a foil in the Republican Congress and the volatile, new House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA).

Voters in 1994 were disaffected over Clinton’s failed effort at universal health care, stiff gun control measures and a BTU tax. Mr. Clinton proposed a “broad-based energy tax” to help curb global warming and help stimulate the economy. Much like the “cap and trade” climate bill the House approved last summer, the BTU tax inflamed moderate Democrats. Particularly those from the southwest that represent the energy industry. Republicans used health care, guns and the energy tax as a wedge against Democrats in the midterm elections. And once the GOP handed Democrats their heads in November, Mr. Clinton, with the prodding of Republicans, pivoted from those issues to welfare reform and balanced budgets.

The midterm election alarm may not have done much for Congressional Democrats. But it salvaged Mr. Clinton’s presidency and propelled him to a second term.

Certainly Congressional Democrats achieved a great deal in 2009. In Sunday’s Washington Post, Congressional scholar Norman Ornstein argued that the first session of the 111th Congress was “the most productive since the Great Society 89th Congress in 1965-66” and suggested President Obama accomplished more than Presidents Reagan and Johnson.

That may be. As Ornstein notes, the House has okayed two major jobs packages, a financial re-regulation bill and the climate control legislation. Both the House and Senate approved health care and a separate measure to expand children’s access to health coverage.

But all of that could mean little to voters. They’ve scribbled President Obama and Congressional Democrats a note at the top of their pop quiz that reads “Please see me.”

Which presents Democrats with an opportunity. Much like the Republican victories of 1994 gave President Clinton an opportunity. The saving grace for Democrats is they haven’t flunked the final in November (yet). They just got skunked in a pop quiz special election. And that could be exactly what Democrats need to redeem themselves.

Back in school, I was never particularly talented in math. I became acutely aware of this deficiency in Mrs. Duncil’s second grade class (rest her soul). As we plodded through division and multiplication, Mrs. Duncil would always slash through my math mistakes with a thick red pen, denoting each incorrect answer. She’d then make me fix all of the problems I screwed up.

But later in the year, we got a student teacher: Miss Chin. Miss Chin was young and beautiful and fun. Even though Mrs. Duncil was tough, I liked her. But I adored Miss Chin. But Miss Chin would still mark up my math assignments with strokes of a red pen.

So one day I asked Miss Chin if she could just put a simple red dot next to the problems I got wrong rather than marking them with a thick, red X. She complied. And somehow, even though I still made the mistakes, I felt better about my shortcomings.

And I never improved much in math.

An old pro, Mrs. Duncil would have never gone for the red dot business. And I suspect that her violent red pen strokes across my math papers would have eventually served as a wakeup call.

I never got with the program. And Miss Chin’s little red dots convinced me my performance wasn’t so bad after all.

Scott Brown’s election was a big red X worthy of Mrs. Duncil’s pen. It cut across the heart of the Democrats’ legislative agenda. Democrats have lots of time to fix their mistakes. But it’s unclear whether Democrats see a big red X. Or if they'll view Brown’s victory as tiny red dots next to the math problems they got wrong.

 

- Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill. 

- The Speaker’s Lobby is a long, ornate hallway that runs behind the dais in the House chamber. Lawmakers, aides and journalists often confer there during votes.