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.