The Current Crisis

The Massachusetts Touch

Or, putting your foot in it, big time, à la the tattooed Shannon O'Brien.

By 11.7.02

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Mitt won, and he won big, and throughout the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Republicans have reason to cheer. It looks like the GOP may be able to make a comeback in future elections. And the reason is simple: Unlike William Weld, Mitt Romney actually owes his election to Republicans. And hopes are high that Mitt will devote himself to party-building, as Weld and his successors most conspicuously did not.

There's a kind of weird symmetry here between the gubernatorial races of 2002 and 1990. The party alignments are completely different. Boston University President John Silber ran as a Democrat, but he was far more conservative than Bill Weld. You thought Newt Gingrich had a mouth -- you never heard Silber. Weld won with the help of shocked Massachusetts liberals crossing party lines; he never owed anything to the GOP. Silber got the conservative and Republican votes, and then blew his lead in the last week with a blatant insult to beloved local TV news anchor Natalie Jacobsen.

I did not see or hear that broadcast (we got here a few months later), and do not know exactly what was said. But the man who told me the story, the former Boston housing commissioner and a trustee of BU, was so shocked at what Silber had said he couldn't repeat the words.

In Massachusetts, politics is not only personal, it's in-your-face personal. In the election just past, everybody called the candidates "Shannon" and "Mitt," and acted as though they knew them. And the candidates themselves, knowing the game, did everything they could to come across personally to the commonwealth's voters.

So when you look for what happened, you have to dig beneath the common answers about organization or get out the vote efforts or ideological positioning. You have to look for something that either resonates very positively for one candidate or very negatively for another.

Shannon O'Brien rang up one of those defining negative moments in her last debate with Mitt Romney, moderated by NBC's Tim Russert. With the discussion clearly headed toward a question about parental consent for abortions, Russert brought up the fact that teenagers could get tattoos without their parents' consent at age 16.

"Do you want to see my tattoo?" O'Brien cracked, a levity that appalled Russert -- and the watching and listening audience. Late-night talk radio, particularly irreverent in Boston, was full of that exchange that night.

In one careless moment, Shannon made herself bitchily unlikable, not to any of the doctrinaire voters who had already made up their minds, but to the ordinary folk who pay only scant and personal attention to politics. It cost her the election.

But that levity amounted to more than mere carelessness. It betrayed the core of what being a Democrat had ultimately become, in the aftermath of the Clinton era, the time when, to quote Gary Aldrich, the Dem insiders all saw themselves as "so f***ing smart." The act has worn itself out. Too many Democrats have displayed that attitude too many times.

For the doctrinaire types, once again, it didn't make any difference. But for the occasionals, the swing voters who decide elections, it finally grated on the senses. And a significant number of those people, all over the country, decided to knock the self-satisfied smirk right off their local Democrat's face.

P.S. Here in Massachusetts, as in the rest of the country, the media just doesn't get it at all. Bob Oakes, the perennial local anchor on WBUR, the NPR news station, marveled that a Libertarian had pulled 20 percent of the vote against Senator John Kerry. Oakes (who pronounces his name "Ewks") appeared not to know the personal motives involved in the voting booth, which were simple: People looked at the Senatorial race, Kerry's name with no Republican opponent, and said to themselves, "I'll vote for anybody against that bastard." And they did. I did, and I don't even remember the Libertarian's name.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.