BY SUSAN ESTRICH
There are plenty of establishment Democrats who are worried.
I know the answer: Yes.
Can a Massachusetts liberal win the general election? That’s another question.
At the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta that nominated Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, a governor who will remain unnamed took me aside and warned me of the troubles ahead: People in his state, he said, think there are only two things that come from Massachusetts, liberals and lobsters, and by October, they were going to figure out that my guy was not a lobster.
Sadly, I knew the difference between winning a nomination and winning a general election.
A year before, when I took over the campaign, I was already a well-known “rules junkie” in Democratic circles, a veteran of two cycles and three campaigns, not to mention the rules fights at the 1980 convention and the two rules commissions that always followed our defeats.
I even coined the phrase “superdelegates” when, as a Kennedy shill, I opposed efforts by the Mondale people to create a new category of automatic, unpledged delegates. My argument was that it would take control of the nomination process away from the women and minority voters and place it in the hands of the white, male, establishment types.
My “lead” was an assemblywoman from California named Maxine Waters. More familiar names: Harold Ickes [who, with a few others, was atop the Clinton campaign and White House] was a rules junkie; Tom Donilon [who has long been one of Joe Biden’s closest advisers] was a rules junkie; Tad Devine [who ran Bernie Sanders’ campaign] was a rules junkie extraordinaire. There is a reason these names are familiar. They wrote the rules for the game. I was proud to make it into the group. In the fall of 1987, I was also teaching election law at Harvard, with a focus on the presidential primary system. I loved the stuff.
Bloated campaigns of overconfident frontrunners tend to blow up in Iowa, and the only issue is whether they can be saved in New Hampshire. On the other hand, an exciting activist ideologue who is not the favorite of the mainstream establishment can catch fire in Iowa, no matter how unelectable. And a well-financed Massachusetts liberal can scrounge enough votes through a well-oiled ground game [a specialty of us Boston pols] to get the bronze, which is generally enough. So if you have a lefty who is also a Massachusetts liberal, the only question will be how to avoid too much hype. Poor Teddy, most beloved of Massachusetts liberals: He got all the hype and then had the bad luck to take on an incumbent president head-to-head on the eve of the Iran hostage crisis [he still got a third of the vote].
The minute the party ends, you get on that plane in Iowa and you fly home. Did I say “home”? Yes. I mean home. For those not familiar with the area, southern New Hampshire, which is the most populous part of the state, and the most important in Democratic primaries, is a suburb of Massachusetts. There is one network affiliate station in New Hampshire. If you want to reach voters in New Hampshire, you buy television in Boston. I remember going to a rally for John Kerry in New Hampshire in 2004, and every car had Massachusetts plates. He was not lighting fires. Was it going to still work, I asked one of his people. It did.
Once you leave New Hampshire, by now with even more money coming in, you can start picking out liberal states on the map with lots of delegates and announce that you are going to win here and there and there. New York. California. Washington state. You can win in states that are unwinnable in the general election by playing to the ideologues – while the moderates keep dropping like flies.
Crazy system? Maybe. But the only thing crazier than the Democrats’ embrace of this system, which gives control of the selection of a nominee to the ideological activists, is that the Republicans have pretty much followed suit.
The president calls her Pocahontas. He is counting on the system to produce a “fringe” candidate who, in his mind, can’t win. Of course, that’s precisely how we got him. And he did win.
– Susan Estrich’s columns appear regularly in The Oklahoma Observer