Friday, October 31, 2014

How the Democrats are losing in Massachusetts

There's an interesting gubernatorial election going on in my home state of Massachusetts this fall.  The excellent, responsible Democratic governor, Deval Patrick, is stepping down, and the Democratic candidate to replace him is Martha Coakley, the state attorney general.  Coakley's candidacy is a good example of what is wrong with Democratic party politics nowadays: they are not focused enough on the key objective, which is to win.  Coakley already lost one of the more important Senatorial elections in American history, when she was beaten by Scott Brown in 2010, taking away the Democratic supermajority of 60-votes.   She lost, to put it bluntly, because she ran a dreadful campaign.  Yet she is still the leading Democrat in the state other than Patrick, and she had essentiall no opposition for the nomination.  

Many of you around the country and around the world probably do not realize that the northeastern states, in state elections, are the most evenly divided in the country between Democrats and Republicans. Massachusetts has had three Republican governors in recent years, William Weld, Paul Cellucci, and Mitt Romney.  Rhode Island and New York have had Republican governors as well.  New Hampshire has both Democratic and Republican Senators, and so, in effect, does Maine.  This year's Republican candidate is Charlie Baker, a WASP with a highly political background who has served in various appointed positions under Republican governors and lost to Deval Patrick four years ago.  He is handsome, relatively articulate, and both pro-choice and pro-gay marriage.  And he is leading Coakley by an increasingly comfortable margin in the polls.

The other night, a most revealing incident occurred.  Coakley and Baker had their last televised debate of the campaign, and one reporter asked them both to describe the last time that they cried.  Baker responded as follows.

"So, I got asked the other day, and I may not make it through this story. I got asked the other day if, to tell somebody some interesting stories of people I've met over the course of the campaign. And I told a story about a fisherman that I met in New Bedford down on the docks who was coming off the boatings was a big huge man, completely soaked in sweat and salt water, and I said I wanted to talk to him about the business in the industry, and he kind of looked at me and he started to cry, so I gave him a hug, he was a big huge guy, I was like hugging him out, and he shook for a while and then we started talking about the business and the industry and the federal government, and then he said see those two kids up there, and he pointed to the two boys on the boat and he said those are my sons, and he said they were both spectacular football players in New Bedford high school who were given college scholarships to go play football. And I told him no, I said, you're going to be a fisherman. I was a fisherman, my brothers were fishermen, my father was a fisherman. You're going to be a fisherman. And those kinds of stories, you hear those kinds stories every day. And it's a big part of why people like you and me, I believe, get into public service, because we want to help people like that."

Baker repeatedly choked up while telling the story, as you can see here.

This answer, naturally, given the wretched state of American political life today, led all the news reports of the debate, and triggered several stories about weeping candidates, from Ed Muskie through Hillary Clinton.  Baker was too busy emoting to spell out the political point of it very clearly, but he was trying to say that the poor big man had not really "ruined" his sons' lives at all, but that federal over-regulation of the fishing industry had--a typical argument by Republicans at least since Ronald Reagan. (If you think I'm jumping to conclusions there, just stay tuned.) From Reagan's own favorite welfare queen, to his young man who bought orange juice with food stamps and used his change to buy vodka, to Willie Horton and his victim, and Joe the Plumber, to a Wisconsin woman who falsely claimed that Obamacare had cost her her insurance, Republicans have been running on stories like these for a long time.  

Reporters got to work on the story, pressing Baker's campaign for details and hoping, of course, to be the first to find the fisherman.   The Baker campaign almost immediately backed away from it, explaining that the incident hadn't taken place during this campaign at all, but rather in December 2009, five years ago.  But the man who led Baker's tour through New Bedford on that occasion doesn't remember the incident, and no one on the New Bedford docks has any idea who the man in question might be either.  .Today's Boston Globe has more interesting details.“Charlie had a conversation with a family fisherman in New Bedford,” Baker's campaign manager, Jim Conroy, now says. “It is certainly possible that this person did not live in New Bedford, and Charlie was mistaken about that five years ago.” Conroy added that the sons in the story may not have had athletic scholarship odders at all.  The Globe has found a very large middle-aged fisherman from South Boston who had two sons who were wrestlers at Stoughton High School, one of whom did attend college on wrestling scholarships and is now a professional ultimate fighter--but he says he is not the man in question.  Neither South Boston nor Stoughton, by the way, is at all close to New Bedford.

But what is equally interesting, although it has gotten very little attention, is Coakley's response. When Baker paused, she jumped in--but not to question the story.

"And I agree with Charlie, this is one of the saddest and most unfortunate things I've ever seen, with federal regulations that were unfair, overenforced in families like that one and in Gloucester. Mortgage to get a boat and then the rules change, their kids couldn't go to college, and similar stories like that. They're not unique, and they are in Gloucester, they under New Bedford, all up and down the coast and they are very touching. We have as a Commonwealth we have done a terrible job of standing up for those people. We have some of the most talented people in the world who could do analytics around what's really happening out there in the water. At M.I.T. and at U. Mass Dartmouth, and we should be all over this. And I feel we have let the federal government drive the data process associated with this, which has driven the rule making process and has left these people with no one fighting -- you fought the legal fight which I admire." 

In other words, Coakley decided to finish Baker's thought for him, and criticize the federal government for wreaking economic havoc on the poor families like Baker's (non-existent) one.  Now I regret that I don't have time to research the issue of fishing regulations in detail, but my impression is that they have been imposed not to destroy the fishing industry, but to save it, by preventing local waters from being fished out entirely and killing the industry for a long time, if not forever.  But Coakley's response shows how effective thirty years of Republican propaganda has been.  She reacted by trying to be more anti-Washington than he was--and that is one reason, in my opinion, why she is going to lose the election.

Similar things are happening all over the country, Obamacare has brought health insurance to hundreds of thousands of people who didn't have it, but I'm not aware of one Democratic Senatorial candidate in a close election who is trying to use it as a campaign issue.  Alison  Grimes, the Democrat running against Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, refused in a televised debate to say if she had ever voted for Barack Obama.  Coakley,. Grimes, and other Democrats are about to learn the lesson that Harry Truman famously tried to teach, and cost the Democrats the Senate in the process. If the people have to choose between a Republican and a Republican, they'll take the Republican every time.


Gloucon X said...

Good article. More evidence (as if we need any more) that the idea of government actively working on behalf of ordinary people has been driven out of our political life. The idea died (or was murdered, depending on your outlook) sometime during that transitional decade of the seventies. It is there that we must look for the gravestone; the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976; the death of Hubert Humphrey in 1978; the ill-fated Kennedy campaign of 1980. Thomas Frank in Salon takes a good look at Jimmy Carter and the long string of similar milquetoast moderates that the Democrats have since nominated for president. All of whom essentially accepted right wing ideas that government is essentially bad and that tooth and claw capitalism should dominate. Unfortunately, this philosophy is now accepted as a if it were a geological feature, and so it has become the bedrock of mainstream political conversation.

ed boyle said...

Every age has to live through its own crisis to understand wht they need. You can't just say that people should think logically. The 19th century was full of social activism which were fought with real bullets, starving families. Nowadays people have food, housing, existence paid somehow and cheap imports to buy plus infotainment and plenty of imperial foreign war distractions continually served up. The state has learned, like rome in imperial phase to keep people self occupied and separate interest groups, oppositions from each other. 1960s brought blacks, gays, women last phase of rights so they cannot complain of institutionalized discrimination, only about individual attitudes of cops, etc.

The nomads, xers leading country are basically conservative in each crisis cycle. 70% of usa is'white', and males fighting to maintain any semblance of self respect vis-a-vis women inshrinking job market. Also the competitionbetween generations for jobs is hard. The social system seems to be unhinged, govt. indebted due to generational contract, medicaid, social security and generally various rights of groups pitted against one another in a shrinking pie situation. The business community exploits the population andnobody can protect themselves so it is dog against dog. So divide and conquer is the imperial principle.

Jim Rush said...

A very apt post. Thank you although your last sentence is not true. I would not.



Bozon said...


Great stuff.

"If the people have to choose between a Republican and a Republican, they'll take the Republican every time."

Although both parties now are fairly fragmented across the interests of most of them, and in favor of the top guys in each, the Democrats are apparently losing the "fragmentation race to the bottom" it seems...

all the best

Rupert Chapman said...

What is happening in the UK at the moment is very interesting, if somewhat worrying. In England, the two major parties are being strongly challenged from the right by the UK Independence Party, which is openly xenophobic, and which both the Labour Party and the Conservatives privately consider to be thinly disguised racists. But in Scotland, it is even stranger. The Scottish Nationalist Party, which just lost the referendum on independence, has gained large numbers of new members, and the polls show that it is likely that in the next parliamentary elections they will hold all but five seats in the Scottish Parliament, one of the other five being a Conservative and the other four being Labour, the two parties which used to dominate Scottish politics. Thus Scotland is well on the way to becoming a one party state, something which really hasn't happened before in British politics. Because the Labour Party nationally has always depended for its majorities on the block of Scottish Labour MPs, this could mean that they would be unable to form a government, except possibly in coalition, but the Liberal Democrats, who are currently in coalition with the Conservatives, also look likely to be severely diminished in the next election, leaving Labour with the choice of either the Conservatives, or, potentially, UKIP as partners. UK politics would appear to be approaching a political crisis of a sort which hasn't occurred here since, perhaps, the 1830s. I am soon going to get to reading Strauss and Howe, to try to get to grips with the situation!

Ray C Neill said...

Politics has a way of making even smart people look incompetent. Coakley may have sensed that Baker's story had great media legs and as his sails began to fill she got on board not worrying where the the trip would end. It was a bad choice. Her attempt at political mimicry caused her to betray the Democratic message and compromised her ability to show real leadership by demonstrating the value of those ideals. Typically, as the President's popularity continues to decline, many candidates will also try to distance themselves from all things "Obama" including the ACA. By next year finding someone who supported Obama in the first place will be as difficult as finding a Nazi after 1945. As Truman's quote suggests, those who wander too far to the right may pay a price for their transgression. Most voters accept that politics is a war and that the truth will always be the first victim but Baker's story, whether a fabrication of events real or imagined, scoured the depths of his depravity and he needs to be vilified for the deception. They're both unworthy of their parties for different reasons. What a dilemma for voters - a Republican who chose to build a castle in the sky or a Democrat who chose to live in it. The voters may have a difficult time deciding who should pay the rent.
Ray C Neill

Unknown said...

“If the people have to choose between a Republican and a Republican, they'll take the Republican every time.”

Hasn’t that been the case since Jimmy Carter. To start, there’s the gutless response of Senate Democrats to the playing of the race card by Clarence Thomas during his Senate confirmation hearings. The silent, relentlessly conservative Thomas is an historical antidote to the progressive achievements of Thurgood Marshall. Compounding this is the failure to block the nominations in subsequent confirmation hearings for John Roberts and especially the right-wing justice, Samuel Alito. The Supreme Court is currently ruled by conservative activists, and with progressive members aging and ailing, is likely to continue to move rightward as a Republican Congress and, possibly, a Republican president dominate politics after 2016. Democrats elected Bill Clinton, the “third way” president who “ended welfare as we know it”, and signed the bill from a Republican congress that repealed Glass/Steagall. Turns out, the third way was to talk progressively and act conservatively; Democrat in name only, and begs the question, is Clinton-the-Lesser any different? The accomplishments of a Republican President, George Bush, who led the US into an expensive and needless war in Iraq, a failed economy, and made the US a diplomatic pariah have been largely buried by time and message. Subsequent to Bush, the House has effectively spiked the wheels of government for four years, and yet, and yet, the electorate turns to Republicans. And yet, the Democratic President, who ended two wars, restored the US economy, made the nation healthier through the ACA and environmental initiatives, led the way on energy independence, stood with gays and immigrants in the fight for equality, repaired America’s international reputation, and fought to restore the kind of vibrant middle class so vital to US prosperity, mostly done with a “do-nothing” Congress, is criticized by Republicans, the press, and now, most noxiously, by Democrats campaigning for office.

The nation is at risk because uber-rich citizens and multi-national businesses own the press, lavishly fund their economic (read political) (and cultural) interests and effectively control the jobs of most of those in Congress, including some cowardly, fraudulent Democrats. The electorate, focused on their jobs and families, isn’t paying attention, or has given up, and has become, therefore, captive in its views to the constant stream of right-wing propaganda (Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, et al). Progressives are hamstrung by their desire for compromise and comity, suspect of battle, waiting for the “long game” that may never come, and are unsupported by those they have placed in office to do good. In this they unwittingly wait for the only event that can interrupt the ultra-conservative time-line, a government response to an uprising by the people. Let’s hope that response, if it comes, looks something like that of Franklin Roosevelt and not like that of Herbert Hoover.