Wednesday, October 22, 2014 • 12:00 AM Comments ()

Between the Lines: Riding the Brand

Martha Coakley and Charlie Baker are more afraid to lose than inspired to win.

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By the time Bill Clinton rolled into Worcester last week to stump for Martha Coakley, the 2014 gubernatorial race was already a dull affair.

While polls since Labor Day show it to be very close—a real nail-biter if seen solely as a horse race—the contest between Attorney General Coakley and Republican Charlie Baker has never been heavy on substance. Clinton’s arrival in Massachusetts with only two weeks to go did nothing to illuminate some of the significant policy and personality differences between the two candidates. Instead, Clinton played a crucial but limited role as celebrity Democrat, sticking to simple branding messages, hoping to energize the base where Coakley hasn’t, reminding any fence-sitters that, despite his ample charm, Baker is still a Republican.

“Do you really think they care about your kids or your families?”Clinton asked the crowd in Worcester, referring to Republicans from out of state who have funded super PAC ads pushing Baker and attacking Coakley. “They will be gone, and you will be left with your decisions and its [sic] consequences, for good or ill.”

To anyone but a partisan Democrat, Clinton’s critique was laughably hypocritical: Bill Clinton has long epitomized the out-of-state party leader who swoops into Massachusetts in the closing moments of any race big enough to register with the national media; never has he indicated a plan to stay here after the votes are cast and counted. Just like the super PAC donors fueling attack ads against Martha Coakley, Clinton will leave us with the consequences of the 2014 election, for good or ill.

As a recipient of Clinton’s frequent fundraising overtures, I can assure you that the former president makes a habit of slamming Republicans for exactly the same crimes he’s busy perpetrating on behalf of Coakley and other Democrats. On Oct. 7, for example, I received a letter that began like this: “There’s an election around the corner, so I’ve been traveling around the country to help Democrats who are standing up for the values you and I believe in, Tom.

“These folks are real leaders with great ideas about how to expand the middle class and make sure that every American has a fair shot at success. They do us proud,” Clinton’s pitch continued. “But their great ideas won’t amount to a hill of beans this November if their message gets drowned out by people like the Koch brothers. ... What you’re seeing from our opponents right now is unprecedented, Tom. They’re willing to say just about anything to tear down our candidates, and they’re willing to spend whatever it takes to get traction. And if we don’t step up, it could work.”

Clinton provides nary a shred of evidence or a specific example of the Democrats’ good ideas or the Republicans’ bad acts. The letter presumes that my fealty to the Democratic party is inviolable, that I require no more than a gentle nudge and the invocation of the dreaded Koch brothers to open my wallet and support the cause.

Were I such a committed Democrat, Clinton’s call to action might work like a charm. And for Martha Coakley, whose biggest strategic challenge post-Labor Day has been finding a way to lift her numbers among registered Democrats—polls show her falling well below the level of support Deval Patrick and Elizabeth Warren enjoyed among Democrats in their most recent statewide campaigns—this race may well turn on the ability of surrogates like Clinton to drive the base her way.

If Baker weren’t committed to a strategy equally heavy on general branding and light on specific, let alone nuanced, points of disagreement, Coakley’s down-to-the-wire play to her own party might well flop, just as her 11th-hour clarion call to the faithful failed in her 2010 race against Scott Brown to fill the late Ted Kennedy’s U.S. Senate seat.

Fortunately for Coakley, Baker has demonstrated no more courage in his campaign than she has in hers. Both candidates seem to have come away from disappointment on the big stage—Coakley’s loss to Brown, and Baker’s loss to Deval Patrick in the 2010 governor’s race—looking extremely cautious, afraid to make mistakes, willing to wait it out and hope that the other one slips up.

The trickiest part for Baker has been finding ways to build his identity as a Massachusetts brand of Republican, a Bill Weld-style Republican, socially liberal and fiscally conservative. While he’s done a better job steering clear of the parts of the national Republican agenda that don’t play at all well in the Bay State than he did against Patrick—he was agnostic about global climate change in 2010, for example, a position he’s sensibly modified since—he’s also tended to curb his criticisms of Democrats on issues like patronage and government waste to avoid looking like an angry ideologue bent on cutting public sector jobs. The tempering of his critique of government excess under Democratic leadership will cost Baker a few votes among Republicans, although the losses will be more than balanced by increased support among the Democrats and unenrolled voters who’d have run screaming from a Massachusetts equivalent of John Boehner or Mitch McConnell.

The hard part for Coakley, as Clinton’s visit clearly demonstrated last week, has been finding ways to fire up the base without driving more independent-minded voters into Barker’s arms. By letting other, more charismatic Democrats assert her superiority for her—“Quite simply, she’s got a better record than her opponent,” Clinton said last week—Coakley may appear weak, but she also limits her opportunities for making unforced errors down the stretch of a close race.

Whatever consequences of the 2014 gubernatorial race we’ll be left with after Nov. 4, this much is for sure: neither the winner nor the loser will have given voters much insight into their backgrounds in the political and civic life of the Commonwealth.

And yet both had interesting tales to tell.

Rather than sticking to fuzzy bromides that comprise their respective political brands, Coakley and Baker could have animated this race by revealing some sense of how their political values were shaped by their experiences growing up in Massachusetts—studying here, working here, raising families here.

If Coakley spent more time talking about growing up in North Adams as the daughter of a very successful small businessman—Edward Coakley was widely revered within the insurance industry for his business acumen and in Berkshire County for his civic commitment to greater North Adams—it would be harder for voters to accept Baker’s unfounded suggestion that she’s out of touch with the challenges facing small businesses or once-prosperous, now largely forgotten mill towns.

Similarly, if Baker talked more about growing up in a politically tempestuous home in Needham with a conservative Republican for a father—Charles Baker Sr. was a Westinghouse executive who served in the Nixon Administration—and a liberal Democrat for a mom, it would be harder for voters to accept Coakley’s unfounded suggestion that his positions on abortion rights and gay marriage are more about political expediency than moral conviction.

But Coakley and Baker have seemed more worried about making mistakes than connecting authentically with voters. Fear has kept both candidates hiding behind branding long established by their parties. If riding the brand has been the safest route for each of the two candidates, it’s also resulted in making 2014 one of the dullest gubernatorial races in decades.•


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