Reforming the MassGOP: “Fun Politics” and Good Government

( – promoted by Patrick)

As Garrett was kind enough to point out, I was in attendance at the Republican State Committee meeting Monday in my hometown of Newton.  Interestingly enough, I had been in the same room as the meeting for Newton North athletic banquets and other events in the past, yet I still managed to get lost in finding the exit on my way out.

Although I arrived after almost everyone else, I went to the meeting in order to present a proposal for a new direction for the MassGOP.  While some state committee members, including those who serve on the Issues and Platform committees, currently have hard copies of this proposal, in the interest of generating public discussion, I have included it here.

This report should have been up earlier, but my browser(s) have been acting up and I have been unable to post.  For that, I apologise.

November 4, 2008 was a difficult day for the Massachusetts Republican Party (MassGOP).  In elections to the Great and General Court, Republican challengers were unable to defeat any incumbents.  At the same time, Republican incumbents were able to win re-election, but in the collection of contested open seats, Democrats won every single one, including the three Republicans were defending.  Thus, Republicans were left with 16 members in the 160-seat Massachusetts House of Representatives, and maintained their five members of the Massachusetts Senate.  After the 2006 elections, the 19-seat House delegation and the five-seat Senate cohort had the perception of being “rock bottom,” but the Pachyderm has sunk even further in the Commonwealth.  Clearly, this situation has resulted in quite a  bit of soul-searching and determination of what exactly happened.

The largest explanation of these recent events is the “Obama effect.”  Democratic presidential candidate and now president-elect Barack Obama attracted new followers and inspired voters to come out to the polls.  Turnout in the Commonwealth was well over 70 per cent, and almost all of the new voters went for straight-ticket balloting.  Although the United States is a federation and the structure of political parties follows the same federal concept, and local issues are different from national ones, Republican candidates allowed the voters to associate them and their colleagues in the MassGOP with the leaders and activities of the Republican National Committee (RNC).  They did not present their cases effectively and convince the electorate to understand the different dynamics between Capitol Hill and Beacon Hill.  This phenomenon also occurred two years ago with the campaign and subsequent election of Obama’s BFF (“best friend forever”), Deval Patrick, as governor of Massachusetts.

Turnout two years ago was similarly high as David Axelrod successfully allowed Patrick to use the same campaign strategies he would give to Obama this year.  In both years, the General Court contingent went down by three members, although unlike this year, a Republican incumbent lost in 2006.  Nonetheless, in both years, Republican candidates suffered from guilt by association.  In 2006, the Republican candidate for governor, Kerry Healey, ran a standard-issue national Republican campaign in which she went on the attack against Patrick before establishing credible issue viewpoints.  By the time she got around to highlighting her issue positions, polls showed the Massachusetts electorate agreed with her overall, but the damage had been done, and the voters did not have a favourable opinion of her.  Also, because she was Mitt Romney’s lieutenant governor and Romney had abandoned the state in order to stand for president, voters punished her through her association to Romney.  This year, Romney was still standing for president; although he eventually lost the nomination, he continued to campaign for John McCain and other national Republican figures.  Thus, strong candidates for the General Court who worked in the Romney administration suffered at the ballot box.

One such candidate was Dan Haley, candidate for state representative in the Eighth Middlesex district.  Haley was a strong candidate, but he served as Healey’s chief of staff and held other positions in the Romney administration; he also spent time at the RNC.  He also overtly supported Question One, with the expectation that the Legislature would likely overturn the initiative; still, it was a losing proposition and brought down its supporters.  His successful opponent, Carolyn Dykema, was able to uses those associations against him; she also claimed that he would not be an adequate representative for the district, since he intended to continue his law practice.  Since she was already a public official in the district through her position on the Holliston Planning Board, she was able to present herself as a full-time representative who would remain present at all times for the district’s constituents.  Although that position led her to endorse higher tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike in order to encourage public transit development, despite the negative effect on the district’s constituents, who often use the Mass. Pike in order to commute to work, she was able to use his previous positions and current desires against him in the election campaign.  The success of other Democratic candidates in open seats reflected the electorate’s lack of patience with trying new public policy ideas.

A number of these candidates, such as Paul Avella and Arthur Vigeant, campaigned on the grounds of offering new ideas on Beacon Hill.  They had previously served as elected officials in their respective communities and had offered concrete public policy initiatives in their respective roles.  Furthermore, as Republicans, they would be present on more legislative committees were the voters to elect them; as members of the opposition party, Republican legislators need to have a stronger depth of public policy knowledge in order to be able to present credible alternatives to the standard fare of Beacon Hill.  On the other hand, their opponents were legislative aides at the State House; through their election, the voters endorsed the status quo, or stopping short of that, decided that they did not want to fight the status quo.

Please see the rest on the other side of the flip.

The successful candidates, the legislative aides, explained that they had experience on Beacon Hill and already knew how the place operates; thus, they would be able to perform adequately at the start of the new session.  These candidates implied that the most important part of the structure of Beacon Hill was partisan politics; thus, by electing freshman Republican legislators, citizens in these districts would risk losing substantial funding in local aid in supporting their municipal budgets, and would also risk the prospects of the Commonwealth withholding important public infrastructure projects in these districts.  As a result, they are more concerned with playing the game to bring money back to their cities and towns than considering important public policy initiatives.  In the long term, this situation is not sustainable, but it will continue as long as the MassGOP suffers from the same image problems and lack of brand credibility as it has suffered over the previous 20 to 30 years, as the voters do not believe that the MassGOP is a credible alternative to the ruling Democrats.  Thus, significant reforms are necessary for the survival and the future success of the MassGOP.

First, the MassGOP must not allow itself to receive the associations with the RNC that have plagued local candidates in recent years.  State Committee member Cynthia Stead of the Cape and Islands district once remarked that state Representative Eric Turkington (D-Falmouth) stated in his 2006 re-election campaign that the electorate in his district needed to re-elect him in order to “send a message to George Bush.”  The United States is a federation; the states are sovereign entities who share power with the national government, but maintain distinct traditions and influential issues.  Similarly, political parties have a federal structure; state parties are members of their respective national organisations, but are sovereign bodies with distinct platforms and issue planks.  They also organise differently in different areas, while sharing power with the national organisations.  Therefore, the voters have to understand that Republicans standing for state and local offices in Massachusetts are different from national Republicans and are not necessarily kindred spirits with Republicans elsewhere in the United States.  However, they are unable to do that at this point, because the MassGOP has not articulated a clear statement of issues or a clear message.  The party must find a message and a set of core beliefs that works in the Commonwealth; it can and should do so by following cues from the Free Democratic Party in Germany.

The Free Democratic Party (FDP) is a “liberal” political party, referring to classical liberalism, or the ideology that inspired Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke and the American Revolution.  As such, it advocates government that is “as limited as possible and as extensive as necessary.”  It proudly embraces free-market economics and the “legal protection of individual freedoms.”  The FDP supports private enterprise, but does not completely disavow the welfare state.  Rather, it wants the pervasive social welfare protections to be smaller or less extensive.  The FDP understands that the market can not provide all necessary goods and services, so government must step in and act in those capacities.  Still, it believes in keeping them to a minimum, and providing these goods and services in the most efficient manner possible, which involves a significant amount of decentralisation and local controls.  Finally, the FDP has taken a political track that is exclusively secular in nature.  The MassGOP would be wise to follow this model and accept these planks as part of its platform, as they would allow the party to remain true to its principles and avoid the pratfalls of the national party that have caused trouble for Republicans in the Commonwealth.  Another aspect that the FDP maintains is the presence of a charismatic leader.

The head of the FDP, Guido Westerwelle, is one of the most popular politicians in Germany.  He is young (age 46), flamboyant, omnipresent, and is able to present his party’s message in a clear, concise manner that allows voters to identify with them.  Granted, a number of these policy positions are far from exciting, such as welfare state reforms, labour law liberalisations, tax cuts and tax code reform, bureaucratic reductions, and technological innovation incentives, but he connects with the voters by maintaining a positive outlook.  In his view, politicians need to have “a needed amount of optimism and lightheartedness” and if they are encouraging alternative policies, then they “certainly don’t do that by yelling out ‘The End is Near!'”  He also maintains success by reaching out to the youth vote.

The hallmark of the FDP campaign in 2002 was a campaign premise known as Spaßpolitik, or “fun politics.”  Westerwelle drove around Germany in a recreational vehicle known as the Guidomobil encouraging voters to consider politics and political developments as something that they could enjoy.  Through this activity, Westerwelle was able to connect with young voters and bring them into the FDP fold.  Given the strong presence of young citizens in the Commonwealth connected either to the universities or the emerging vibrant local industries such as biotechnology, the MassGOP would be wise to consider this approach towards young voters and make them excited about politics.  This approach requires a strong, charismatic, energetic leader; a perfect choice would be state Senator Bob Hedlund.

Sen. Hedlund, of the Plymouth and Norfolk district, has the potential to be one of the most preferred politicians among young voters.  As a member of the Republican Liberty Caucus, he opposes the War on Drugs.  He also opposes “sin taxes” on alcohol and tobacco products.  Most importantly from a policy standpoint, he is committed to fiscal responsibility and the overall financial health of the Commonwealth.  Finally, he loves music, beer, baseball, sports in general, and other popular youthful pastimes.  With his issue positions and his personality, Sen. Hedlund can energise young voters to the point that they embrace the MassGOP and turn out to the polls in larger numbers.  Nonetheless, the Spaßpolitik approach has some caveats.

In the aforementioned 2002 German election, the FDP only won eight per cent of the vote.  It lost seats and it lost votes because the electorate saw the “fun politics” premise and believed that the FDP did not take its governmental responsibilities seriously; thus, they could not be trusted with governmental management.  Therefore, the FDP stressed competence in the 2005 election and gained support.  Still, “fun politics” brought youth voters into the fold, but without a sense that the party’s leaders are able to effect “good government” principles, the approach will not achieve success.  As a result, the MassGOP must supplement “fun politics” with a leader who can bring competent management experience.  An example of such a manager is Charlie Baker.

Baker, the CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, has been recognised as one of the top health care managers in the nation.  He also brought strong management principles to previous Republican administrations, and has shown an ability to get things done regardless of who is involved.  However, that ability could cause a problem for any potential candidacy of his; his service on Gov. Patrick’s ethics committee has the potential to remove one of his potential campaign planks.  Still, someone in the mold of Charlie Baker leading the party will demonstrate the commitment of the MassGOP to good government and sound management principles.

The Massachusetts Republican Party is at a crossroads.  With the exception of elections to the corner office, it has experienced massive electoral defeats.  Thus, it needs to develop a new approach that can bring voters back into the fold.  By embracing the concept of “fun politics” and clearly-articulated good government principles, it can work its way up to reaching the status of a credible alternative.

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