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Class Politics and Bad Campaigners

Yes, I know, there are levels upon levels of meaning in regard to the results of the Massachusetts election Tuesday. Health care angst, populist anger over the economy, rebellion against incumbents, a harbinger of a coming Tea Party tsunami, blah, blah, blah. No, my interest in this is totally without substance; it is completely juvenile.

It’s akin to the fascination of watching a combination blooper reel/car accident. It’s the political version of the guilty pleasure of watching America’s Funniest Videos, when a daredevil bicyclist falls on his ass or a skateboarder eviscerates himself on a pole.

Aside from all the momentous implications of the Massachusetts race, watching bad campaigns- really, really bad campaigns- is like happening on a bad car accident; not pleasant to see but irresistible to watch as you drive by.

Massachusetts

Such was the insanely, hilariously wretched campaign of Attorney General Martha Coakley. Those who followed this know all about the Curt Schilling incident, in which she claimed to be joking when during a radio interview, she said the Boston Red Sox World Series pitcher of bloody sock fame was a Yankee fan. Schilling shills for the G.O.P. on a regular basis so it was expected he would shoot back and he did- with a vengeance. “But never, and I mean never, could anyone ever make the mistake of calling me a Yankee fan. Well, check that, if you didn’t know what the hell is going on in your own state maybe you could…”

Then, of course there was Coakley’s defensive response to a question about running a lackluster campaign: “As opposed to standing outside Fenway Park? In the cold? Shaking hands?’’ Something the victorious Scott Brown did.

About 20 years ago, when he was head of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, I got to know former Boston Mayor, Ray Flynn- a true Massachusetts pol. Ray understood the nature of retail politics in the Bay state. Not only would he have shaken hands in the cold outside Fenway Park, he would have gone into one of the nearby bars, shaken hands and drank them all under the table until 2 in the morning then gotten up three hours later and run five miles, shaking more hands while he jogged.

We need not go into detail about the week-long vacation Coakley took after her primary victory December 8th. Nice message there about your electoral engagement.

New Jersey

Last year, there was the strange and dismal campaign run by New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine, another race that left political pundits desperately trying to read tea leaves. Here’s what I wrote about it last November:

Living in the New York/New Jersey market, I’ve been subjected to a heavy dose of the Corzine ads which have been just awful. Basically, they’ve featured unflattering video and stills of Chris Christie making the following case against him- don’t vote for him, he’s fat.

Anyone who’s ever read any recent studies on obesity in this country can tell you this was not a smart move. What the hell was the Corzine media strategy team thinking? Let’s appeal to every thin, latte-drinking, white-wine sipping blue-blood in New Jersey and really piss off people who like to eat Double Whoppers with cheese!

Those Bubba visits to McDonald’s during the Clinton years were a lot more politically astute than most people realize.

Maryland

Another politician who goes down in the annals of bad campaigners was Kathleen Townsend Kennedy as she hopelessly sought to become Governor of Maryland back in 2002. She once bragged about hiring people who speak “Hispanish.” In the closing days of the campaign, she was speaking at a Maryland college and completely forgot where she was, invoking the name of another nearby university as chronicled by the BBC eight years ago:

At a recent key campaign event, Mrs. Townsend forgot the name of the university she was appearing at and tried to recover by recalling a previous gaffe.

“I’m so sorry, but I could never tell the difference between a touchdown and a football,” she said – a reference to the time she said the Baltimore Ravens had scored a football.

Interestingly enough, in all three of these races, the Republican candidates positioned themselves as “regular guys.” The contests were all quite similar to the dynamic of the Kerry-Bush Presidential race of 2004; Ivy League patrician versus Texas good ol’ boy.

I hate to say this because it sounds so quaint, but more often than not, especially in states like Maryland, New Jersey and Massachusetts, all of which have a large, down-to-earth, blue-collar quotient- sometimes it really does come down to who you’d rather have a beer with.

Note: Democrats are, indeed, not the only bad campaigners. As a dear colleague has reminded me, George H.W. Bush ran a horrific Presidential campaign in 1992 exemplified best by his clueless performance at a grocery store scanner in which he was amazed at the new-fangled technology and tipped off that he’d never shopped a day in his life. And he was bested by possibly the best “regular guy” candidate in history- Bill Clinton. One of the rare moments when it was the Democrat who was the “normal” guy and the Republican who was seen as out of touch with everyday folks. That, in fact, may have been the campaign in which it became the M.O. forever more that all candidates studiously memorize the average price for a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk.

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