A Race Too Far?
QUESTIONS haunt the decision by Massachusetts's Republican governor, William F. Weld, to run against the incumbent Democratic senator John F. Kerry this year. Is it the wrong race? Is it the wrong year? Is Kerry the wrong target? The right race, this theory goes, was the last Senate race in Massachusetts. The right year was 1994. The right target was Senator Edward M. Kennedy.
In 1994 Republicans won the House for the first time in forty years. They captured the Senate. They all but swept the governorships. They defeated Ann Richards and Mario Cuomo. They unseated the speaker of the House, Tom Foley, and old bull Dan Rostenkowski. In negative ads Democrat after Democrat was morphed into Bill Clinton, who had bet his presidency on health-care reform and, in a blizzard of blunders and propaganda, had failed utterly.
On election night, as worse news followed bad for Democrats, one race stood out. Only one Democratic icon survived. Only one old bull remained upright.
First elected in 1962, Ted Kennedy was by 1994 the longest-serving Bay State senator since Henry Cabot Lodge (1893-1924). But 1994 was a year when the word "incumbent" carried for much of the public the opprobrium of "pedophile." Ted Kennedy was Mr. Liberal, and in 1994 the health-care fiasco had made liberalism look more than ever like a plot spun by elitists and bureaucrats to straighten out (pace Kant) the crooked timber of humanity. Ted Kennedy had lived like a Kennedy far past the point where that was fashionable or even tolerable; and 1994 was a year of such retching virtue that one candidate (in Indiana) borrowed a dog to crown the tableau of domestic felicity shown in his ads--Mom, Pop, the kids, somebody get us a dog. His opponent ran an ad attacking him for the borrowed dog.
Ted Kennedy, in short, was achingly vulnerable in 1994. As late as September his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, a Mormon venture capitalist running for elective office for the first time, and Kennedy were in a dead heat in the polls. But Romney had never before had "the deep frisk," which is the political strategist John Sasso's way of saying that he had never been pawed over by the press. In due course the deep frisk turned up workers who had been hurt by Romney's venture capitalism. And Kennedy, in a family first, attacked Romney in negative ads. In the event, Kennedy won by a misleadingly swollen margin of 17 percent.
BILL Weld, through all this, was engaging in a meaningless (and mean) re-election campaign. He had popularity to burn in 1994. Elected narrowly in 1990 against John Silber, the president of Boston University, a Democrat who gave the inconvenient impression of being only fitfully sane, Weld had worn well in office. He did not take himself seriously. He was known to lift the convivial glass. Rich, well-born, married to a descendant of Theodore Roosevelt, a WASP in one of the most Catholic states in the country, Weld got credit for being, despite everything, a regular guy. Hell, he hunted boar. But instead of using his political capital to take on Ted Kennedy, Weld chose to run up the score against state representative Mark Roosevelt, who carried only two of the Commonwealth's 351 cities and towns.
Had Weld run against Kennedy and won, as polls suggest he would have, he might well have been a presidential candidate in this year's Republican primaries. Beating Kennedy would have trumped any complaints the Republican right has against Weld. Against old Bob Dole, Weld would have shone as the fresh face of 1996, the opportunity candidate, the tax-cutting candidate, a self-confessed "filthy supply-sider."
So even if this election proves not to be a race too far for Weld, he may already have lost the one big chance of his career. Weld's is a well-rounded ambition, not the distended mania for office that crazes most politicians. It would have taken a bit of that to face Kennedy in his family fief. Much less is required for Kerry.
THE political terrain this year is very different from that in 1994. Then Bill Clinton was an albatross for Democrats; now Newt Gingrich, whom Weld has incautiously hailed as "an ideological soulmate," is one for Republicans. Then liberalism had seemed to overreach itself; now, owing to the radical new Republican majority in the House, it is conservatism that appears to have gone over the top. What's more, 1994 was an off year, when the predictably low turnout would favor Republicans--a sect-sized minority in Massachusetts politics. This year is a presidential-election year, when, other things being equal, the Democratic turnout should be up. And Massachusetts remains one of Bill Clinton's strongest states. If Clinton has coattails anywhere, he will have them here.
Also, the fury against incumbents because they're incumbents appears to have abated, as voters have had a sobering look at the former insurance men and car dealers and other nonpoliticians they elected in 1994. It's risky, too, for sitting governors to take on incumbent senators. Typically the path of gubernatorial aspiration goes upward, to the presidency, not laterally, to the Senate. (Beating Ted Kennedy would have been a step up.) Only three members of the current Senate, for example, mounted successful general-election challenges as sitting governors against sitting senators. Wendell Ford defeated the Republican senator Marlow Cook in Kentucky in 1974, when the Republican Party lost forty-three House seats and four Senate seats in the aftermath of Watergate. In 1988 Richard Bryan, a Democrat, unseated the Republican Chic Hecht, who cut a comic figure in the Senate. Bob Graham defeated the Republican senator Paula Hawkins in Florida in 1986, when the Democrats recaptured the Senate after the Reagan landslide of 1980. And Hawkins was a flagrant mediocrity. No one would call the St. Paul's, Yale, and Boston College Law School graduate John Forbes Kerry mediocre.