A Race Too Far?

"A pillow fight at the Somerset Club," one local wag calls the Senate contest betweensons of prominent Brahmin families in Massachusetts. Meanwhile, the son of its most famous Irish family watches and smiles.

Politics --

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.

politics pictureIn 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.

WHAT people do call him is not flattering, though. What has he done for Massachusetts? What has he done for the country? What has he done, period? These are the questions people ask about Kerry. For a senator who has been in office twelve years, he's curiously undefined. Weld will supply the lack. Partly because he serves in the ample shade of Ted Kennedy, who ranks as one of the great senators of the postwar era by reason of major legislation passed and causes championed, Kerry rarely appears on the proscenium of politics, the local TV news. Moreover, Kerry has sought to make his mark in un-Kennedy areas--foreign relations, banking, commerce--for that reason as much as because he is interested in them.

Kerry's cosmopolitan childhood (his father was a career Foreign Service officer) also hurt him. He was reared in Europe and packed off to boarding school, with weekends spent in places on Boston's North Shore where rich people go and are thin together. Kerry is the least-ethnic Massachusetts politician since Michael Dukakis, who discovered he was Greek about an hour before announcing his candidacy for President.

Nor has Kerry sought to anchor himself in the Commonwealth through marriage. His first wife, Julia Thorne, was raised in a Roman villa full of rooms and servants. His current wife, Teresa Heinz, was born in Mozambique, then a Portuguese colony. The widow of the late John Heinz, a Republican senator from Pennsylvania, she is the heiress to the $650 million Heinz catsup fortune. Last year, when Heinz was mugged in Washington, Kerry kept to his round of fundraising events instead of rushing to her side. Did she miss him? "I just needed hugs," she confided to Margery Eagan, of the Boston Herald. Those may have been the four most frightening words spoken in Massachusetts Democratic politics in decades.

Though she still refers to John Heinz (not John Kerry) as "my husband," though she is still a Republican, and though her official residence is still in Pennsylvania, Heinz has deigned to refurbish a mansion on Beacon Hill's most exclusive block, and frequent local sightings of her have been reported. A veteran campaigner, an effective public speaker known for her advocacy of environmental causes, she is now firmly with the re-election program--even being a good sport about her money. "Do you like Massachusetts?" Kerry asked her in a Burns and Allen routine they put on at a Saint Patrick's Day event. "I love Massachusetts," she replied. "How much is it?"

Then there is Kerry's cool, cerebral manner. Archaeologists have searched, but have been unable to discover a single Kerry joke.

Kerry accrued his Lincolnian gravity in Vietnam. Thrice wounded, he led (and lost) men in battle. His wife says he still wakes in terror in the night. No wonder--one of his citations is for charging a Viet Cong sniper's nest, head on. Combat cost him. What it gave John Kerry was character.

"The guy has guts," Jack Blum, who investigated the drug-contra connection for a subcommittee on terrorism that Kerry headed, told me recently. "So many politicians are in the job so people will love them. Kerry is a throwback to senators like Phil Hart, who, even though he came from Michigan, investigated the auto industry. They run for office not so people will love them but to use the powers of office"--in Kerry's case to expose betrayals of the public trust.

In three investigations during his two terms Kerry has charged targets head on. He is a hero of a new biography of the Washington power lawyer and Democratic pooh-bah Clark Clifford. In Friends in High Places: The Rise and Fall of Clark Clifford, Douglas Frantz and David McKean depict Kerry as the only Democratic senator who was willing to investigate the Bank of Credit and Commerce International and Clifford's role in its mega-larcenies. "What are you doing to my old friend Clark Clifford?" an older southern Democrat asked Kerry in a Senate elevator one day. Kerry made no reply, but told an aide accompanying him, "You should hear what they say to me in the cloakroom." Not in public life to be loved, Kerry pressed on. The evidence compiled by his committee helped to close down a huge criminal conspiracy.

Kerry went after Oliver North more than a year before Iran-contra broke, exposing the connection between the U.S.-supported Nicaraguan contras and drug trafficking. And when Arthur Liman, the chief counsel of the Iran-Contra Committee, agreed to a White House demand that the committee be permitted to see only edited portions of North's diaries, Kerry refused to go along with the whitewash and persuaded the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to subpoena the North diaries. This did not endear him to his colleagues, who above everything were eager to avoid impeaching Ronald Reagan.

Kerry's staff did not want him to address the explosive POW-MIA issue--nor was he eager to touch "the third rail in his life," as one friend put it. Still, as a decorated veteran he had political capital on Vietnam, which brought with it responsibility. After exhaustive and emotional hearings a Kerry-chaired special committee issued a unanimous (12-0) report that laid to rest the harrowing and commercially robust fantasy that U.S. POWs are still being held in Indochina. The report opened the door to the normalization of relations with Vietnam.

Kerry was both a war hero and a war protester, a founder of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He sees his Senate career as continuous with his anti-war activism. Then as now, he says, he sought to hold power publicly accountable. Making government obey the laws and its officials tell the truth, Kerry says, is a precondition to restoring the public trust on which any progressive use of government depends. Kerry's investigations can thus be seen as means to a liberal end: to put government on the side of the governed.

Puzzlingly, Kerry rarely mentions any of this on the campaign trail, preferring to recommend himself as a co-sponsor of the reauthorization of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

BY comparison with the Kennedy-shadowed John Kerry, Bill Weld is an open book. Critics say Weld is a total opportunist. That he is driven by polls. That he is not a conviction politician. This criticism is jejune. These characteristics are virtually a job description for politicians. What's remarkable about Weld is the degree to which he has kept to his course.

He has not raised taxes. He has publicly disagreed with Cardinal Bernard Law over abortion--and he was booed at the 1992 Republican Convention for mentioning it. He has not retreated from gay rights. He has tried to balance environmental protection against the need for business expansion. He has come out strongly for affirmative action. While Vice President Al Gore was telling a New Hampshire Chamber of Commerce audience that AT&T's layoff of 40,000 employees was "natural" and "efficient," Weld was calling for greater corporate responsibility to workers and their communities in his State of the State Address. (Secretary of Labor Robert Reich mischievously sent a copy to Gore.) When congressional Republicans threatened to cut the Earned Income Tax Credit, which subsidizes the wages of the working poor, Weld said that Massachusetts would make up the difference for its EITC recipients.

True, for much of last year Weld was --as Kerry, wickedly waving the bloody shirt at the nonveteran Weld, charges--"AWOL," hunting boar and campaigning for one (California Governor Pete Wilson). True, he throws red meat to the talk-radio crowd--taxes, welfare, death penalty--with shameless calculation. True, Weld has not--as the journalist Christopher Lydon claimed in an influential New York Times Magazine article several years ago--changed the political culture of Beacon Hill but has been changed by it. At the close of the 1994 legislative session he connived in a deal of Machiavellian effrontery with the Democratic senate president, William Bulger, and house speaker, Charles Flaherty, to raise legislators' salaries 55 percent in return for a cut in the state's capital-gains tax. The cut was tacked on to a bill described simply as "tax relief for low-income families," which passed with apparently just the principals knowing that capital gains was in it.

Yet Weld's genial insouciance has helped him to navigate his contradictions. John Sasso notes with amazement that shortly after announcing he wanted to fingerprint welfare recipients, Weld showed up at a Cambridge party full of high-minded friends of the poor--and was affably at ease in this liberal Zion. The manner gap with Kerry is all in Weld's favor.

So it's a strange race, pitting a rich Harvard guy raised on a Long Island estate who married a Roosevelt against a rich Yale guy raised abroad who married a Portuguese catsup heiress. How will this play in South Boston?

IF you survey the political topography of Massachusetts through the eyes of Louis DiNatale, a pollster and analyst for the University of Massachusetts at Boston-McCormack Institute, you see three pools of voters: the D pool, the R pool, and the I pool. Let's take them in turn.

Massachusetts went from being the most Republican state in the union to being the most Democratic from the late 1920s to the late 1940s. The architect of the shift was Senator David I. Walsh, of the central-Massachusetts industrial town of Clinton. In the mid-twenties he fashioned the "Walsh coalition," which became the "Al Smith coalition" and finally the "New Deal coalition." It was a vital patchwork of the state's ethnic groups--Irish topmost, but also Italians, Jews, Portuguese, and others--and labor unions and liberal academics and professionals. United by interests (a desire for higher wages and safer working conditions), ideology (a belief in government as protector and ally), and a shared sense of exclusion from the Yankee Protestant Republican power structure, the Walsh coalition dominated politics for decades. That Bill Clinton can assume he'll win Massachusetts in November shows that Walsh's work endures.

Today the D pool contains 1.2 million registered voters. To carry the state Weld has to hold Kerry to about a 60-40 win among the Ds.

That's because the R pool is virtually empty. That is the big change from Walsh's day, when Republicans were thick on the ground in the small towns of Massachusetts. Today there are only about 400,000 left.

Weld's hopes for victory rest with the I pool. Always important in Massachusetts politics, independents now decide state elections. Under Weld their number has swollen to 1.3 million. Weld carried them in his 1990 race against John Silber--but John Kerry, DiNatale says, is an "I-profile D."

To win, Weld will have to carry at least 55 percent of the Is, 80 percent of the Rs, and 40 percent of the Ds. He will court the conservative Ds with his dependable hot-button trinity of taxes, welfare, and death. He will go after the Is by sounding like one--offering to give Hillary Clinton, with whom he worked on the Watergate committee, a character reference, for example, as he recently did on Imus in the Morning. He can count on the Rs.

And Kerry? DiNatale says that Kerry's last name will help him among the born-to-vote Irish-American civil servants who make up, for example, 40 percent of the state's judges and 60 percent of its judicial clerks (even though Kerry is not in fact Irish). His challenge will be not to sound so much like a D that he loses Is, who are Is partly in order to feel superior to Ds.

I think Kerry will do better among the independents than DiNatale forecasts. They are doing better economically than Democrats, and in the 1994 midterm elections Is leaned Democratic. Kerry's trouble is more likely to come from the Ds.

THIS year's election will be the first of the post-New Deal era conducted under the frugal sign of the balanced budget. In a historic development, the two parties now agree that fiscal balance should be the transcendent goal of economic policy. As of June, 1995, when Clinton accepted the Republican goal of balancing the budget, the debate has been over how little government can do, not how much. That is a Republican debate.

"Tax and tax, spend and spend"-- FDR's formula had a little-remembered third part, "elect and elect." That was the winning formula of the Democratic Party. Social Security, Medicare, the GI Bill, schools, roads, libraries, child nutrition, public health, are among its monuments. Voters elected Ds because Ds spent on what voters wanted.

After the Reagan interlude of "borrow and borrow, spend and spend," Republicans have returned to their ancestral faith in a balanced budget. It's the Democrats who have changed. Bill Clinton has cut his party off from its past, leaving Democrats, including John Kerry, without much different to say on bread-and-butter issues from what Bill Weld says. Clinton may have made this a race too far for Kerry.

The irony is that Clinton has led his party into irrelevance when social and economic circumstances should have given it a firm purchase on the politics of remedy.

A pathbreaking econometric study by the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth, called The State of the American Dream in New England, shows the opening that exists for an old-time D. From 1989 to 1994 New England families "experienced a drop in their median real incomes of over 9 percent . . . nearly double the 5 percent decline prevailing nationwide." In Massachusetts the median real income of families fell from $53,330 to $49,949--a decline of 6.3 percent. Families with no children saw their real incomes fall by 9.3 percent, female-headed families by 11.8 percent, and those with less than a high school education by 17.6 percent. Families headed by college graduates lost 5.4 percent of their income. Even families headed by holders of postgraduate degrees saw their incomes fall.

Bill Weld trumpets the jobs he has created in Massachusetts, but the statistics tell a different story. Fully 60 percent of the growth in the Massachusetts labor force since 1980 has been among low-wage immigrant workers. The study is blunt about the effects of this new flood of imported labor: "It is quite likely that foreign immigrants are exerting a downward pressure on the low end of the New England wage scale that is contributing to our stagnating wages and incomes and to rising wage inequality."

Falling incomes, a shrinking middle class, a growing number of will-work-for-food immigrants--this is the state of the American Dream in Massachusetts (where, to cite a representative figure for New England as a whole, from 1949 to 1959 families saw their real incomes grow by nearly 55 percent). This slide in incomes has been wrought by the capricious workings of the free market, not by government. Weld, a libertarian, believes in the free market as a matter of principle. As senator he would strive to get government off the backs of the downwardly mobile families of Massachusetts. No doubt that would be a solace to them as they faced the world market alone. So much for Bill Weld.

And John Kerry? He will vote to raise the minimum wage; Weld won't. Nearly 60,000 of the worst-off families in Massachusetts would get a pay increase, and thousands more would feel an upward pressure on their wages. Unlike Weld, he will vote against the balanced-budget amendment, which would enshrine Herbert Hoover's economics in the Constitution. But beyond that Kerry can't say much to the downwardly mobile. A small increase in spending for education, a pittance more for worker retraining, but nothing that would increase the deficit--which is to say, nothing. And no time-outs on immigration (free labor) or foreign competition (free trade), either. Kerry voted for NAFTA.

I have said that Kerry's trouble in this election is likely to come from Ds, who, not hearing real D talk, and not excited by Bill Clinton's in-state crushing of Bob Dole, may fail to turn out in the kind of numbers Kerry needs to win, repeating what happened nationwide in the 1994 midterm elections. Also, absent the politics of remedy on economics, Ds are vulnerable to Weld-Silber appeals to the politics of resentment. Welfare recipients and new immigrants may be in for a rough time in Massachusetts. The whole country is in for a rough time as both political parties turn their backs on its overriding problem, leaving a civic void to be filled, soon enough, by extremists--the jackals of American decline.

Illustration by William Bramhall

The Atlantic Monthly; August 1996; A Race Too Far; Volume 278, No. 2; pages 21-25.