Tuesday, November 26, 2002

It's the monopoly, stupid! I'm a day late in taking note of this Brian Mooney story in the Globe on the state of the Massachusetts Democratic Party. As Mooney notes, the Democrats have lost four consecutive governor's races, and they've done it while trying every conceivable model: a bombastic conservative (John Silber, 1990), a liberal policy geek (Mark Roosevelt, 1994), a reformist outsider (Scott Harshbarger, 1998), and a play-it-safe insider (Shannon O'Brien, 2002).

The current battle, Mooney reports, is between moderates, who think the party has moved too far to the left, and liberals, who complain that their party's candidates have grown so cautious that there's a growing passion gap.

I'm skeptical about all of this. The truth, I suspect, is that the best way for the Democrats to win back the corner office is to let the Republicans capture a meaningful chunk of seats in the legislature, and maybe even a couple of congressional seats and a constitutional office or two. Even during the heyday of Michael Dukakis, the Democrats did not have quite the iron grip on state politics that they do today. The voters, alarmed at this one-party dominance, have not quite demanded divided government (obviously), but they have opted for at least some minority-party oversight. Voting for Republican governors has been the best way they could do that.

This year's race tells the story. Coming out the primaries, O'Brien, a capable career pol who'd done a good job of running the treasurer's office, jumped out to a significant lead over Republican Mitt Romney. The public clearly had real doubts about Romney, who, despite his moderate rhetoric, came across as significantly more conservative on social issues than his Republican predecessors, Bill Weld, Paul Cellucci, and Jane Swift.

So what turned it around? O'Brien's poor campaign, in part. The key, though, was when Romney started running against the "Gang of Three" -- House Speaker Tom Finneran (a staunch O'Brien ally), Senate president-apparent Bob Travaglini (brother of top O'Brien aide Mike Travaglini), and O'Brien herself. Voters took a second look, decided O'Brien would be one Democrat too many, and made a leap of faith by switching to Romney.

The real problem with Massachusetts Democrats is not that they are ideologically divided or out of touch, even though both of those propositions may be true. Rather, it is that they are the victims of their own success.

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