“NOW THIS is in keeping with my drift to the right,” says a smiling Senator Michael Barrett as we sit down to lunch a few days before his formal campaign announcement. But when he sees me jot the words down, his smile tightens slightly. A few moments later he cautions, “You know I'm kidding about my ‘drift to the right,’ don't you?”
Ah, but is Mike Barrett kidding? Isn't it the very premise of his campaign for governor that he is a Democrat who “gets it” -- that he is no reflexive liberal, with a jerking knee and a bleeding heart and a hand just itching to raise taxes?
“I'm a different kind of Democrat,” he tells me. “I believe in the wealth-creating role of the private sector. I supported NAFTA. I want a longer school year.”
Barrett doesn't like the phrase “drift to the right.” I wouldn't either if I had a Democratic Party convention and primary to get through. Nevertheless, he's been spinning energetically to paint himself as closer to the center than his party's other gubernatorial candidates, state Representative Mark Roosevelt and attorney George Bachrach.
Only a moderate Democrat can turn Governor Weld out of office, argues Barrett, and of the Democrats in the running, only he qualifies. “The trouble with Roosevelt and Bachrach is that they do not recognize the need for the Democratic Party to change and appeal to the voters in the middle.”
Several times he refers to Paul Tsongas -- the maharishi of Democrats Who Get It.
But merely dropping Tsongas' name does not a centrist Democrat make. I ask Barrett for specifics: On which issues does he break ranks with his party's leftists? Certainly supporting North American free trade, a stance that earned Barrett some nasty jibes from the AFL-CIO last November, is one. Are there others?
He comes up with four.
He voted against the antiprivatization Pacheco Bill. (Of course, Barrett is heavily supported by, and dependent on, the human services vendors who lobbied heavily against the bill.)
He has promised not to raise taxes if elected. (Of course, he also vows not to cut them. And his promise has a “major exception” -- he would support new taxes to pay for universal health insurance.)
He is against subsidizing fertility treatment for welfare mothers. (Of course, so is Ted Kennedy.)
He thinks Bill Bulger should be retired from the Senate presidency. (Of course, Barrett is leaving the Senate; a better litmus test is how he acted toward Bulger when he entered the Senate. His sucking-up then was described by a Globe editorial -- headlined “Bulger's new friend” -- as “a blatant example of what is wrong with the Massachusetts Legislature.”)
If Barrett's philosophy has become more balanced over the years, it ought to be reflected in his legislative record. We ought to see a shift in the ratings compiled each session by the state's political advocacy groups, which grade legislators on the basis of “key” roll-call votes. Yet the liberal organizations give Barrett the same high marks they gave him 15 years ago; the conservative ones rate him as poorly as ever.
For example, Barrett drew a 78 percent score from the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts in 1979 -- and a 100 percent in 1990. The lefties at Citizens for Participation in Political Action -- CPPAX -- gave him a 91 percent in his first term -- and a 90 percent in his last one. In the estimation of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, advocates of higher taxes and spending, Barrett grew from 50 percent in 1979 -- to 95 percent in 1993.
Conversely, while Barrett may cite Tsongas on the importance of small business, to the National Federation of Independent Business it's votes, not quotes, that matter. In 1979 the federation rated Barrett a paltry 25 percent; by 1992 he'd climbed all the way to . . . 29 percent. And in his last four legislative seasons, Barrett has earned ratings of 16 percent, 5 percent, 13 percent, and 10 percent from Citizens for Limited Taxation, the state's leading no-new-taxes lobby.
One rating might be a fluke. But all of them?
When he ran for state senator in 1986, Barrett kept a diary, later published, recording the progress of his campaign. It is not the journal of a Democrat having second thoughts about doctrinaire liberalism:
He described the great benefits of being endorsed by Barney Frank, “the most credible liberal in Massachusetts.” He noted that he won the Ward 21 Democratic Committee endorsement by “stressing . . . the importance of uniting behind a progressive candidate.” He recorded, with satisfaction: “I am slowly consolidating my claim to being the only progressive hope in the race. Last week I was endorsed by CPPAX, one of the most respected of the liberal issues groups.”
If the Democratic primary this year turned on niceness, Barrett would be the favorite; he is a very decent man. But “a different kind of Democrat?” With a “drift to the right?”
Only if nothing before 1994 counts.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)