DEMOCRATIC CAUCUSES — AND GOP TOO : IDEALISTS AND REALISTS

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^ Newton ward 2 caucus : idealists For Don Berwick, realists for Steve Grossman

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It’s hard to dig any message out of the five-candidate-for-Governor, Democratic caucuses that were held during the past month. Only after a full month of sitting in at about eight of those caucuses has a meaning become even hypothetically true, and it’s a cliched one : the Massachusetts Democratic party is split between idealists and realists. Or if you prefer, radicals and centrists.

This sort of division has ruled Massachusetts Democratic actives at least since John Silber, then Scott Harshbarger, then Shannon O’Brien, became the party’s nominees for Governor. Deval Patrick’s winning the 2006 Democratic nomination confirmed it. Yet in each of those cases, going back to 1990, the Democratic winner differed — in some cases sharply — about policy initiatives already contentious within the legislative calendar. This time the gulf between Democratic realists and idealists has widened. It was much in evidence at the City of Newton caucuses yesterday, where delegate candidates pledged to the quintessentially realistic Steve Grossman barely edged out delegate hopefuls pledged to this year’s idealist of idealists, Don Berwick.

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^ realistically idealistic : Steve Grossman at the Boston ward 3 caucus

Both men live in Newton, and between them they claimed the entire prize of almost 100 delegates. There wasn’t much sentiment for Juliette Kayyem at the Ward caucus that I sat in on (Ward 2) and none at all for Martha Coakley or Joe Avellone. Home town strength mattered, but it wasn’t the major fact. Of this campaign, Steve Grossman epitomizes realism, Berwick the radical. Kayyem has been a candidate of glamor and nuance : but nuance doesn’t seem to cut it. She’s made scant mark on any of the caucuses I have attended, yesterday’s included. at every caucus she has her team, wearing “I am for Kayyem’ T shirts” (whose grey base contrasts meaningfully with the bold white backing dark blue of Team Berwick); but Kayyem’s team gatherings seem, at leat at the caucuses I’ve sat through, unable to translate enthusiasm into numbers. As for Joe Avellone, he doesn’t even bring a team, much less win a delegate (tough news reports have him winning quite a few out by Worcester County).

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^ realistic outsider : Joe Avellone at Boston ward 14 caucus

Avellone is particularly weakened by being a candidate of realism who is also an outsider. This doesn’t work. A candidate cannot be persuasively realistic unless he or she is very much an insider. realistic goals presume the clout to get them done. Outsiders lack that. an outsider must be an idealist; must represent those who want the insider game shaken up. This, Don Berwick — or his helmsman –understands. He advocates all the wish-list that burns tyger-brightly (as William Blake once spelt it) in the night forests of Democratic progressives’ dreams : single payer health care, graduated income tax, green energy funding, sentencing reform, higher taxes to pay for transportation and infrastructure. He insists on them all; and the Democrats of idealist bent have responded. as recently as a month ago I thought that Juliette Kayyem, not Berwick, would be the third Democratic Governor hopeful to win the necessary fifteen percent of delegates or see her campaign end. Today I think it’ll be Berwick.

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^ nuance and glamour may not work : Juliette Kayyem addresses Newton Governor Fum

Kayyem might have easily taken the route that Berwick took. She would have trounced him had she done so. Kayyem has charisma galore and is stunningly beautiful : if you meet her and don’;t rmemeber it vividly, physically, you’re a zombie. But Kayyem seems to have played her resume both ways : Obama administration,. Homeland security official, and thus an insider who should be realistic; but also outsider — having never run for anything elective — who gets the progressive agenda. Gets it, but doesn’t necessarily advocate it; certainly not in the all-in, progressive or bust gambol that berwick has winged. Unhappily for Kayyem, it’s unconvincing for a novice candidate to present as competent and idealist. Even for someone already an office holder, it would be difficulty to be both, especially in this season, when voters disbelieve that office holders are competent and distrust that idealists really mean it. Thus the success of Grossman and Berwick : because Grossman has proven himself uniquely competent, and Berwick, as a doctor successful in private practice and government, has the health care issue credibly to himself as well as the bedside manner that we expect of a physician.

And what of Martha Coakley, whom the polls say is still the choice of most Democratic voters ? Among activists, at least, she is falling way short because she has already failed the competency test, as a candidate first of all, and seems to continue to fail it — her money intake lags badly as does her presentation at Forums. There she demonstrates that an idealist, she isn’t. On those issues where she takes uncompromising stands — abortion rights, a prime example — she seems to move by calculation, not conviction.

Coakley may well still win the Democratic Primary, though I doubt it. If Kayyem doesn’t make the fifteen percent, I do not see her supporters going to a candidate even more diffident than Kayyem and — as one caucus goer put it — “hardly exciting.” Some will go to Berwick; but i think most will move to Steve Grossman.

If Grossman becomes the Democratic nominee, he will face a Republican who does seem convincing both as an idealist and a realist. Idealist, because in today’s GOP — even in Massachusetts, where the party at Governor level remains progressive — it’s idealistic to support marriage equality, abortion rights, expanding the earned income credit, and raising the minimum wage to $ 11.00 an hour. realistic, because Baker accepts the unemployment insurance give-back that Speaker Robert DeLeo insists on as a condition of his bringing the minimum wage hike to a vote.

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^ leader and voice of the Governor GOP party, one of two MA GOP Parties : Charlie Baker with st rep Jim Lyons of North Andover and (on bottom right) Monica Medeiros, candidate in the Fifth Middlesex Senate District

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^ representing the “idealism” of the “left outs, the ignored” : Mark Fisher

It’s because Baker convinces both as idealist and realist that he will win his primary against a Tea Party opponent. Mark Fisher almost perfectly represents the idealist wing of today’s Massachusetts GOP. He goes as all-in on the Tea Party;s agenda as Don Berwick does on the Wish list of Progressives. Fisher rejects marriage equality, abortion rights, a minimum wage rise. Fisher dismisses undocumented immigrants as “illegals’ and promises to make life in Massachusetts as difficult for them as he can. Fisher bitterly brandishes “gun rights.” Indeed, Fisher — a classy guy one on one — projects, in his public pronouncements, an angry tone; he rocks his “salt of the earth, long ignored” voters as they rock themselves : angry to be ignored, lashing out at those who get the attention of officials who ignore them, pissed off at Turnpike toll takers, angry about taxes that they see being spent on Boston but not out where they live.

There is, in Fisher’s campaign, an idealism of sorts — he calls it “principles” — as off the table as Berwick’s; but what a toxic idealism it is ! Anger is not a policy, scapegoating people is not legislation, and opposition to marriage equality and women’s reproductive rights is anathema to a large majority of Massachusetts voters. Only within the State’s eleven percent who register GOP does Fisher’s “idealism” have legs. Just as the idealistic Berwick has won himself a significant activist following, so Fisher’s views comport with a significantly GOP activism.

Right-wing actives have captured the GOP State Committee; this we saw in last week’s 52 to 16 vote to adopt the “values voters” platform. But the views these people espouse, their wagons circled in redoubts of reaction like the so-called “Massachusetts Republican Assembly” — which blithely calls itself “the Republican wing of the Republican party” — no more command a majority of GOP voters than the progressivism of Don Berwick commands a majority of Democrats.

It would be unlikely to find a democratic activist as negative as Fisher’s left-outs. The Democratic party is Massachusetts’s governing party; no Democrat is a “left-out.” But our GOP, except on the Governor level, runs nothing.

In fact the gulf in our GOP between Fisher’s “left-outs” and Charlie Baker’s confident moderates derives directly from this split. In fact, the he Massachusetts GOP is nothing less than two entirely separate political parties : one, a Governor GOP party, dedicated to electing its Governor — a party to which a large majority of GOP voters belongs and whose followers do not see themselves as left out or ignored; and two, a “Grass roots” GOP, spearheaded by idealists who are indeed an interest left aside by an overwhelming State consensus on the issues these “grass roots’ actives care about.  care about. Statewide, the Grass roots GOP numbers barely five percent of all voters; but within the eleven percent registered as republicans they’re a significant number — polls say 39% of the GOP whole.

Not surprisingly, the Grass roots GOP dominates in those regions of the state most alienated from Boston, in which GOP registration (and like-minded “unenrolleds”) count a majority of all voters. Almost all the State’s 30 GOP legislators represent Grass Roots GOP communities. How could it be otherwise ? the Grass roots GOP’s stands on the issues make its election impossible in most Massachusetts areas, and in any case, the Governor GOP hasn’t much interest in winning legislative elections on its realist-suburb turf. It’s far readier to accept — and usually can count on — the support of Democratic legislative realists. Can’t do that if you’re running GOP candidates against them !

NOTE : it wasn’t always this way. During the period 1990 to 2006, when Massachusetts had four consecutive GOP Governors, the entire GOP grass roots was deployed on behalf of the Governor. But since 2006 the Governor has been a democrat. With the Governor GOP out of power, the grass roots GOP has been as left out and ignored as it claims to be, and its embrace of the politics of a minority had a certain practicality about it.

Though at what a price !

In the Democratic Party, the division between realists and idealists takes a very different shape, because both mindsets win elections and thus feel anything but ignored or left out. Their differences are those of a contract negotiation, both parties knowing that once a contract is agreed to, each side will have to carry it out; and are quite ready to do so because they’re already doing it.

It is good that Mark Fisher has arisen to give voice to the left-outs. If the rest of us take their anger, their bitterness, their disparagement of everything that “Boston” means to them — huge taxpayer dollars spent; public transit; enormous state government programs; social inclusion — indeed, celebration — of many lifestyles, languages, and immigrants of all conditions; bicycles and night life; rejection of gun culture; the Unions and high wages; devotion to quality of life issues — as seriously as they hate us, perhaps we can find a way to bring these voters back into the community we call “Massachusetts.” And perhaps not. We will probably never see Don Berwick’s single-payer health insurance adopted in Massachusetts, or his graduated income tax. Never might also be the timeline for Mark Fisher’s voters. And maybe that’s OK. After all, what’s an idealism good for if the realists can absorb it ?

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

Author: hereandsphere

Here and Sphere is an online journal of news, opinion, reviews, advice, & bits n' pieces of everything else - from HERE to SPHERE...... Co-founded by Michael Freedberg, a long-time Boston Phoenix journalist, and Heather Cornell, a South Coast Massachusetts columnist and editor.

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