Premortem

It remains to be seen just what Tuesday will bring here in Massachusetts as well as the country. Though I still think Coakley can/will eke out a victory, my own prediction of her closing strong and winning by close to double digits seems quite absurd. But I think there are two valuable lessons to be learned.

First, not only do voters turn away from what they perceive to be coronation campaigns, but it is damn near impossible to change their minds once that perception has been cemented. The past couple of weeks here in Massachusetts have been filled with messages from prominent Democrats and their allies for Martha Coakley. And while there has been some re-engagement among the party’s base, the independent voters do not seem to be responding. In fact, these appeals may be having a negative effect as it feels as if the political machine is circling the wagons for one of its own, which plays into Brown’s (dubious) claim of independence.

The other lesson here, and one that is sure to be missed by Democrats in DC, is that the party cannot fail to deliver on its promises of the past two elections and expect its base to remain engaged, committed and active. Unfortunately the folks in DC will take the closeness of this race as evidence that the party needs to trim its sails. But scaling back their agenda, whether on the economy or environment, will only serve to alienate not only the base, but the independents who gave Democrats both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. If Democrats do not make some substantial progress towards their goals, November is going to be a very, very bad month for the party.

Much Ado…

I am of two mind about this. There is some talk that if Scott Brown were to win the MA Senate race (he won’t), that his certification/swearing in would be delayed until after health care reform has been passed. The goo-goo side of me says that such a thing would be bad for government and bad for people’s faith in government, etc.

But the partisan in me thinks this is exactly what should happen. If you think for one second that the GOP would not do the exact same thing you’re not only naive, but completely ignorant of history. Just take a look at the Texas redistricting fiasco in the early 2000’s- broke with protocol, very likely violated the Voting Rights Act, etc. Or how about all of the GOP voter suppression efforts of the 2000’s.

News flash- political actors often engage in activities that straddle the line of propriety in order to advance their political goals. So to all the cry babies at the Herald and on right wing blogs, go Cheney yourself.

How Not to Win a Senate Race

Although the three major polls of the MA Senate race show different results, the bottom line is that Martha Coakley has turned what should have been a cakewalk into an actual race. And therein lies the problem. Team Coakley assumed that once clear of the primary, she was going to be the next senator from MA. That type of assumption is a cardinal sin in politics.

Though MA is a blue state, no one likes a coronation campaign. The hubris and arrogance drive undecideds away from what might be their common electoral home. In addition, failure to engage an opponent is, with very rare exceptions, a phenomenal blunder. Not only will it allow your opponent to take swipes at you unanswered, but you will also come under fire from editorial boards and others who believe in an active civic dialogue.

Team Coakley has done all these things in spades. She was not on the air after the primary and did minimal advertising through the holidays. And she was not exactly blazing up the campaign trail either. Only recently has she gone back up, and not in a particularly aggressive manner. She has failed to make the case that she deserves to be our next senator.

That this race could be within ten points is a testament to how poorly her campaign has been managed. Sure, there are challenges outside of her control (unpopular Dem governor, among others), but there is simply no good reason that a right wing former model ought to be even close in MA. Coakley has not gone after Brown or his record nearly enough. Instead, she and her campaign simply assumed that having a D next to her name was sufficient to win. But voters do not often reward hubris.

Prudence Should Trump Politics

When my boss came back to the office from a briefing this morning, he told me about the December revenue numbers and my comment was something to the effect of you know they’ll spend it ASAP. Apparently, I was right. While I am overjoyed that MA revenues have exceeded projections, especially in December, I don’t think that now is the time to restore some of the 9c cuts. Between the Governor’s commitment to restore regional school transportation and the $14 million restoration of TAFDC, the money is already spent.

Now, it should come as no surprise that I favor spending on social safety net programs and believe that we (in MA and nationally) spend far too little money on these programs. So then why do I think that restoring some cuts is bad policy? Well (and hopefully I am not speaking out of school) close to half of the increase in the December revenue numbers is due to tax settlements. This is not actual revenue growth, but merely one time events. And, one or two months of okay revenue numbers does not make a healthy fiscal year. There are no guarantees that January through June will meet, let alone exceed, the October projection (new revenue projection for FY10 is due out about the 15th and it will be interesting to see how DOR/ANF view the world).

The danger here, in case it is not yet obvious, is that the state’s fiscal picture could worsen between now and the close of the fiscal year. Then what? Do we go back and make further 9c cuts? Do we take back the money we restored in January?

What the administration ought to do is put the higher revenue into the stabilization fund. I do not advocate that as a means of replenishing, but rather as a safe place to store cash in the event that it becomes necessary between now and July 1. Of course, as we get closer to the end of the FY, if revenue numbers continue to improve then we ought to consider restoring some of the painful cuts that have been made. But only insofar that those funds are not going to be needed simply to provide level services in FY11.

Alas, this just is not politically feasible. First, everyone on Beacon Hill likes to spend money. Especially given the drastic cuts that have been made this year. Plus, it’s an election year and putting money into the stabilization fund, though prudent fiscal policy, is not sexy politics. It’s really just that simple.

If I Were Advising Deval Patrick

With the gubernatorial election just over 10 months away and with approval ratings that are pretty much in the dumpster, Governor Patrick can use all the help he can get. For those readers not up to date on the current field, there are two Republican candidates and one independent (former Democrat) vying for the opportunity to unseat the incumbent governor.

First, on the Republican side, are Christy Mihos, a former independent candidate for governor, and Charlie Baker, a former cabinet secretary in the Weld and Cellucci administrations and former CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare. Mihos does not offer too many specifics on his website, but the picture it does paint is of a somewhat conservative Republican, particularly on social issues. He favors opt-in for sex education and opposes the use of embryonic stem cells, for example. Mihos has also called for the state to guarantee 40% of its revenues to cities and towns.

Charlie Baker is what is known here as a Weld Republican. It’s essentially our version of the old Rockefeller Republicans- fiscally conservative, socially tolerant. As I have written before, Baker selected an openly gay state senator to serve as his running mate. Similar to Mihos, Baker has called for a change to local aid, such that a defined share of state taxes would be set aside for local aid (unlike Mihos, he does not peg a certain percentage). Baker also calls for the repeal of this year’s sales tax increase, but couples that with support for closing the educational achievement gap and tweaking the state’s health reform efforts (including forcing providers to make public their rates). Socially divisive issues like abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research are absent from Baker’s website.

The independent in the race is former Democrat, and current state treasurer, Tim Cahill. As of yet, Cahill has taken no specific positions (at least as represented on his website) other than arguing (correctly, I might add) that local aid needs to be on the table when discussing budget cuts. Otherwise, all Cahill offers is boilerplate language about being a fiscal conservative and being opposed to tax increases.

Now that is out of the way…. here is the advice I would give to the Governor.

  1. Ignore Tim Cahill entirely. He will be a non-factor in the general, except to siphon off some anti-incumbent votes from the GOP nominee. Also, his position on local aid, though right, is political suicide. Cutting local aid is akin to being opposed to apple pie and motherhood.
  2. Begin campaigning against Baker, but keep it at least somewhat below the surface. Baker is the prohibitive favorite on the GOP side. He has the pedigree and the political moderation to actually win in a blue state like Massachusetts.
  3. Also, the right messaging early on could help to expose fissures in the GOP. For example- focus on tying Baker to the national GOP, who are probably the only group of folks less popular in MA right now than the Governor. This presents Baker with a choice- distance himself from the Party or owning some of the insanity. It’s a win for Patrick either way. If Baker distances himself, he risks fomenting a teabagger uprising (yes, they really do exist even here) that would drive support to Mihos and force Baker into a much more difficult September primary than he has planned. If, on the other hand, Baker fails to distance himself from the national party, the opportunities to tie the GOP around his neck are endless, especially in a blue state like MA.
  4. Ignore Mihos. He has next to no chance of being the eventual GOP nominee. Plus, any messaging that weakens Mihos makes Baker’s path to November much easier.

I am under no illusions that the Governor will actually consider my advice. Not only has he proven remarkably inept at governing, but (notwithstanding 2006) he is an amazingly poor politician. Clearly no state executive is going to be the most popular person in the state during a fiscal crisis, but Governor Patrick has made more than his fair share of optical missteps as well as tactical errors. His one saving grace may just be that he’s not a Republican.