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James Kirchick
Bay State Blues
What’s the matter with Massachusetts?
26 September 2007

The Bluest State: How Democrats Created the Massachusetts Blueprint for American Political Disaster, by Jon Keller (St. Martin’s Press, 250 pages, $24.95)

Last January, newly elected Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick—the second African-American elected state official in the history of Massachusetts—sent some symbolic messages, removing a red velvet rope that had previously blocked visitors from the governor’s suite and opening an adjacent private elevator to the public. Even to many of his early detractors, Patrick seemed like a breath of fresh air in a staid and bloated political culture. He was a dynamic orator, with a biography even more compelling than his friend Barack Obama’s: growing up in miserable poverty on the south side of Chicago, attending Harvard College and Harvard Law School, and becoming an assistant attorney general and later a high-level corporate attorney. The buzzword of his gubernatorial campaign, like that of Obama’s current presidential one, was “hope.” That Patrick was a black man who had lived many years outside Massachusetts also seemed a refreshing change from the old-boy, Italian-Irish network that had dominated state politics for decades.

Yet even before he took office, hopes dimmed that Patrick would represent a clean break from the worst excesses of Massachusetts’s political traditions. First came the news that he was planning a $1.6 million, five-day inaugural extravaganza, a state record and over twice what his predecessor, Mitt Romney, had spent on his own inauguration. Then, just weeks after taking office, Patrick replaced Romney’s official vehicle—an old Ford Crown Victoria—with a Cadillac. As he prepared to submit a budget cutting social services and raising taxes, it came to light that Patrick spent over $27,000 of state money on new office furnishings. News also emerged that Patrick had hired a scheduler for his wife, an attorney at a high-powered Boston law firm, to the tune of $72,000 on the public dime. Other mini-scandals—like Patrick’s making a phone call to former treasury secretary and Citigroup executive Robert Rubin on behalf of Ameriquest, a lender owned by a mortgage company on whose board Patrick once sat—further tarnished his reputation.

To Jon Keller, a New England political commentator who reports for the city’s CBS affiliate and writes a column for Boston magazine, Patrick represents much of what is wrong with Massachusetts’s feel-good, yet ultimately self-destructive and indulgent, liberalism. While Patrick’s way with words and the simple novelty of a black state candidate excited many voters, Keller—a political maverick who supports gay marriage and abortion rights, yet also favors lower taxes and a muscular foreign policy—remains skeptical. Patrick, he writes, is “a boomer politician whose campaign amounted to one long cleverly staged photo op geared toward gullible boomers.” A more apt description of the Patrick phenomenon has yet to be written.

The Bluest State presents itself as the answer to Thomas Frank’s 2004 bestseller, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, in that it uses the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as a foil to describe a national political trend. Frank argued that conservatives cynically used cultural issues to woo middle-class and lower-income voters to support the GOP against their own economic interests. Keller offers a keen rebuttal: the baby-boomer Massachusetts liberal establishment—for years disproportionately represented in the national Democratic Party apparatus through frequent presidential candidacies (Kennedy, Dukakis, Kerry), powerful congressional representation, and homegrown political strategists and advisors—is to blame for much of the national party’s negative image.

Keller constantly refers to the state’s “boomer political establishment” and blames it for the state’s woes. Massachusetts has one of the highest costs of living—which has led to population decreases over the past several years—and Keller identifies several culprits: a legislature so overwhelmingly controlled by Democrats that it can override any governor’s budget veto; public employee unions; and a liberal media (typified by the preachy Boston Globe) that always calls for more spending. While the current liberal political establishment and that of yesteryear, embodied by Senator Ted Kennedy (who remains the most powerful man in state politics) and former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, are similar in their love for big government, Keller distinguishes the boomers from their predecessors by their regularly “indulging in self-defeating behavior” like political correctness and “abortion rights absolutism.”

Keller discredits many of the pieties held dearly by the state’s liberal establishment. He comes out and says what everyone in Massachusetts politics, irrespective of political affiliation, has long known: John Kerry is a self-important senator whose staff can’t be bothered to answer constituents’ requests—in contrast with Kennedy, who, whatever his faults, is a workhorse for federal pork—and whose nomination for president was a catastrophically stupid move on the part of the Democratic Party. While supportive of gay marriage, Keller remains uncomfortable that it came about in Massachusetts through a State Supreme Court fiat. He helpfully reminds readers that Willie Horton (whose name, to all right-thinking liberals, is now synonymous with unfair race-baiting) was a vicious murderer-rapist whose story was appropriate fodder for a 1988 attack ad exposing Michael Dukakis’s troubling positions on criminal justice.

Readers who don’t live in Massachusetts will probably be most interested to read Keller’s thoughts about the state’s latest presidential offering, former governor Willard “Mitt” Romney. Keller writes positively of Romney’s political history, reminding us of his courage in running for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in 1994, risking humiliation but in the end giving the liberal lion a run for his money. He writes of the state Democratic Party’s “xenophobia” in its lame and ultimately self-defeating attempt to prevent Romney from running for governor with phony charges that Romney couldn’t claim Massachusetts residency because he had spent the three previous years “salvaging the 2002 Winter Olympics from corruption and mismanagement.”

Elected as a managerial, no-nonsense reformer with a sharp business sense, Romney began his tenure as a white knight committed to cleaning up the state’s hack political culture. He stood up to Billy Bulger, former senate president and still an influential presence, for refusing to testify before Congress about his serial killer brother, Whitey. He refused to dole out patronage jobs in the judiciary. He tried to merge the state’s Turnpike Authority into the Highway Department and transfer control of the Big Dig project to the executive branch to eliminate patronage and graft.

But Keller is also critical of Romney for what he sees as the governor’s pandering. Once he got “Potomac fever,” Romney became more focused on his presidential electoral strategy, beginning a series of frequent, out-of-state trips and all but ignoring political reform in Massachusetts. Keller sees Romney as a man who could have run for president as a consensus-building moderate, with a strong record as a popular governor—but whose presidential politicking and need to build credentials with social conservatives in the Republican Party eroded his once-high approval ratings. His chosen gubernatorial successor was walloped at the polls, ending over 15 years of Republican governorships.

An entertaining and informative case against the hackery, waste, and political correctness of the Massachusetts mandarins’ media and political establishment, The Bluest State is long on diagnoses but short on advice for how the Democratic Party, in the state and nationally, can better itself. But Keller’s crucial question—“Are [the Democrats] ready to grow up, see the worn-out nostrums of Kennedy country for the dead end they are, and take a different route?”—is an excellent one, and those Democrats concerned about the state of their party would do well to read this shrewd political analyst’s J’accuse.

James Kirchick is on the editorial staff of The New Republic. He was born and raised in Massachusetts.

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