Is that a Freight Train Coming Down the Track?

Voter anger was electric, the mood as dark as the cascading economy crushing employment and state tax revenues.  And anyone running as an incumbent was running for their political life.

But that was 20 years ago.

It remains to be seen if the 2010 political landscape is as corrosive as in 1990 when more than two million voters went to the polls and ended a 16-year run of Democratic governors to start an era of Republican governors that would last another 16 years.

The collapse of the “Massachusetts Miracle” economy under former Governor Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic Presidential nominee, was made all the more painful by the governor’s use of the state’s then high-flying economy as his bona fide for managing the country. When that economy imploded, his presidential campaign exploded and the shrapnel hit anyone associated with him politically.

The Democratic field to succeed Dukakis featured former state Attorney General Francis X. Bellotti, the party’s nominee; Lt. Gov. Evelyn Murphy, and the “plain speaking” John Silber, then president of Boston University, whose blowtorch rhetoric seemed the perfect path to his own political ruin. Asked about the disproportionate expenditure of health care dollars for end-of-life care, Silber famously quoted Shakespeare’s King Lear that “when you are ripe, it is time to go.” He actually likened Jesse Jackson’s rhetorical speaking style to that of another famous orator – Adolph Hitler – and said that if he (Silber) were to become president of the United States, Jackson would “have a place in my Cabinet, because every President needs someone to write bumper stickers.”

We had him right where we wanted him. Two weeks before the September 18th primary, we were up in the polls by double digits, had all the field staff we could handle, and though nervous, began to think about the final campaign.

And then we lost the Democratic primary to him by 10 percentage points.

One of the important lessons from 1990 – that may well replay in 2010 – is that people lie to pollsters. While the media had a field day with “Silberisms,” we learned painfully near the end of the campaign in focus groups that people were not, in fact, shocked by these “Silber shockers” but actually found it “refreshing” that someone would speak his mind. Like now, voters were looking for an updated version of Howard Beale’s “Mad as Hell” rant as an articulation of their own fears about the economy and their family’s future. 

In the end, voters gave their nod to Republican Bill Weld, a moderate who could claim outsider label by making more reasonable utterances like how prisoners should have their TVs taken out of their cells and made to “break rocks” in the prison yard.

Democrats are already on the attack in the 10th Congressional District race against former policeman Jeff Perry for what he did – or didn’t do – when a female adolescent was being strip-searched. They will take statements he has made about immigration and his support for the Tea Party and bludgeon him in an unrelenting media blitz. Perry warns that they do so “at their own peril,” and he is probably right.

Silber didn’t lose because he said crazy things. He lost because people started to think that maybe he actually was crazy, and Republican Weld satisfied their need for change.

Polls may tell us what is going to happen, but it may be more reliable this year to put your hand on a rail. If it rumbles, jump back, because there is a freight train coming down that track.

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