Sunday, November 25, 2007

Peering into the liberal sandbox

"I was in Dorchester not long ago," Mitt Romney said in his closing statement in the fall of 1994 debate for Senator against incumbent Ted Kennedy. "Someone said, `This is Kennedy country.' ... "And I looked around and I saw boarded-up buildings and ... jobs leaving, and I said, `It looks like it.' "

And Dorchester (South Boston) hasn't changed much since then.

Friends sometimes ask me about Massachusetts politics, especially since former governor Romney is running for President. Here's the stuff they leave out of the Boston Globe.

It's a strange state: the country's most left-wing in some respects, much of its Democratic base consists of "yellow dogs," not liberals. But the state's political cultural is dominated by bleeding hearts and has been seriously dysfunctional for decades. The worst excesses of Kennedy-Johnson era liberalism were checked in a modest way in the 1980s by Dukakis, then later, in a more serious way, by a series of reasonably good liberal Republican governors. But Romney's early departure from the state for national politics left the Republicans without a viable candidate for 2006, and the governorship was captured by outsider Deval Patrick, the Democratic nominee.

Like Lousiana, Massachusetts is one of the last states in the country governed by a long-lived one-party machine not far removed from the days of patronage corruption. The once-fabled Massachusetts liberalism was really just an attempt to expand the list to include those, like blacks and Hispanics, once excluded from the patronage gravytrain. The more fundamental challenge, frontally attacking the lavish spending and burdensome regulation that makes Massachusetts one of the country's most expensive places to live in, has largely been avoided. But facing it would do far more good for everyone - the overtaxed middle class, working class folks facing an almost-impossible cost of living - than yet more spending. Patrick has attacked older forms of patronage, but he is a big friend of the newer types of pork, like his unnecessary billion-plus-dollar biotech initiative. And it's not even aimed at poor people any more; now it's the political class splurging on itself and its friends - because, you know, they deserve it. Exhibit A is the 16-year-long saga of the Big Dig, which will probably never be finished and still doesn't work properly. Its price: enough money to build twice over enough public housing for every poor person in the state.

No one knows the foibles of Massachusetts' weird upper-crust liberalism - making the "classes" feel good about themselves, while making life nearly impossible for the "masses" - than Jon Keller, author of The Bluest State: How Democrats Created the Massachusetts Blueprint for American Political Disaster. His blog for local broadcaster WBZ is a must-read for anyone interested in Massachusetts politics and the Democratic Party.

Recent Democratic electoral successes in no way invalidate his analysis: those are entirely due to the Republicans' own mistakes, not to any Democratic strength. Keller, himself left-of-center, knows as only an insider can what's wrong with the Democratic party: it's lost touch with ordinary voters in a frenzy of trendy causes, generational vanity, and hypocritical paternalism. Everyone else gets stuck with the bill. And then the voters: Massachusetts voters lack serious alternatives, yet react timidly when they appear. Not that there aren't signs Massachusetts is restless.

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