WE WERE the angry voters. Disgusted with politics as usual. Alienated from elected officials. We hated Congress. We despised the candidates' slanderous advertising. As we counted down the days until Nov. 8, itching to teach the arrogant, out-of-touch political establishment a lesson, steam was hissing from our ears. Our faces were turning red. We. Were. Mad. Come Election Day, everyone was going to know it.
So why did Massachusetts voters reelect every statewide incumbent on the ballot Tuesday, return every member of the congressional delegation to Washington, and give another two years to virtually every state legislator who ran? We were supposed to be headed for an electoral earthquake, but the needle on the Richter scale barely fluttered. Where was the explosion?
Part of the answer is that Massachusetts already had its explosion. 1990, remember? The great anti-Dukakis, throw-the-bums-out seismic jolt: John Silber's blood-and-guts campaign that demolished two Democratic Party veterans and nearly captured the State House. Republicans taking three of the six constitutional offices and grabbing 40 percent of the state Senate. Then, two years later, the aftershock. For the first time in almost a century, three Massachusetts congressmen were defeated -- and two of the winning challengers were Republican.
That kind of political upheaval is virtually unheard-of here. Rarely do voters in this state grab the political establishment by the scruff of its neck and shake it until its molars rattle. Having worked off their anger by doing so in 1990-92, Massachusetts voters weren't gearing up for another eruption.
But that's not the entire explanation for what happened -- or rather, what didn't happen -- in Massachusetts on Tuesday.
The national tidal wave that swept congressional Democrats out and Republican challengers in everywhere else broke before it reached Massachusetts because most of this state's Democrats faced only the weakest GOP opposition, or none. You can't beat somebody with nobody, they say, which is why US Reps. John Olver, Barney Frank and the six other Massachusetts Democrats in the US House are going back to Washington.
But the most imposing incumbent of them all -- Sen. Edward Kennedy -- could have been beaten.
Kennedy's triumphant reelection was not foreordained. As the 1994 political cycle began he was in worse political shape than most of the Democratic legends who were toppled across the country this week. Every opinion survey put his unfavorability ratings at near-fatal levels. In poll after poll, Massachusetts voters kept agreeing that it was time for someone new. Kennedy's vulnerability was almost palpable -- more so, even, than that of Ann Richards, Dan Rostenkowski, Mario Cuomo, James Sasser, or Tom Foley -- all of whom were kicked out of office on Tuesday.
This was the year to unhorse Ted Kennedy. The right opponent waging the right campaign could have done it.
Mitt Romney wasn't that opponent.
No, you can't beat somebody with nobody. And by the same token, you can't beat an incumbent who stands for something with a challenger who stands for nothing. Not in Massachusetts.
Yet Romney believed -- or allowed his consultants to persuade him -- that he could win a seat in the Senate by steering clear of issues. He was determined not to make the race a clash of ideologies, not to take firm stands on controversial issues, not to run as a committed conservative against the nation's most famously committed liberal. He bent over backward to avoid being identified with the Republican Party -- going so far as to distance himself, in the first debate, from Ronald Reagan, the greatest Republican president of the last 50 years.
Senator Kennedy, to his credit, ran as an ardent Democrat, proud of his liberal philosophy. Romney ran as a don't-hold-my-party-against-me Republican, painting himself as a harmless moderate who wanted to talk about glass ceilings and opening up the Boy Scouts to homosexuals, and how prepared he was to work with President Clinton and the Democrats in Congress. For voters, it came down to a choice between a real liberal and a watered-down liberal. They stuck with the genuine article.
Romney described himself as "a Weld Republican, not a Shamie Republican." Ray Shamie was the unabashed conservative who ran against Kennedy in 1982 -- a calamitous year for Republicans -- and pulled roughly 40 percent of the vote, the best performance of any Kennedy challenger until this year. Romney, with a powerful Republican wind at his back and a tremendously popular Republican governor on his ticket, improved on Shamie's performance by -- 1 percent.
The ultimate irony is that not even Governor Weld ran as a "Weld Republican." On the contrary: He ran far to the right, hammering home conservative themes -- tax cuts, crime control, the death penalty. And, above all, fierce welfare reform. Weld spent millions of dollars on an advertising avalanche, but not one of his commercials dealt with gay rights. Or environmental regulation. Or gun control, or abortion on demand, or any of the other leftish positions he has supported as governor.
Romney fell for the canard that the only way Republicans can win in Massachusetts is to be as much like their opponents as possible. Intellectually and strategically, that idea is a loser. And so, today, is Mitt Romney, who had the greatest opportunity to make history of any Republican in America this year -- and blew it.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)
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