The Ghost of Lee Atwater

Rollins, Atwater, Nofziger

I just finished watching tonight’s gubernatorial debate. I can’t help but be fascinated by the terrible predicament that Lt. Governor Kerry Healey finds herself in. Sure, I expected the Republicans to launch a wave of negative attacks on the Democratic candidate – much as Gov. Mitt Romney’s ads alleged that Treasurer Shannon O’Brien wasn’t adequately minding the store in 2002 (when she had, in fact, uncovered a Republican scandal at the Treasury). The first Ben Laguer ad brought an interesting decision of Deval Patrick into the forefront.


Like most other observers, I’m sharply critical of the most recent anti-Patrick ad. It’s not necessarily that it goes too far; it’s merely that the implication of the ad – that because Patrick complimented a rapist for his writing ability somehow renders Patrick a philo-rapist – is completely outrageous, by almost anyone’s standards. Most observers have commented similarly. What I find absolutely unbelievable is that this is an ad paid for and sponsored by the Healey campaign itself. Mark Starr, who covered the 1988 presidential race, likens Republican attacks on Patrick to Lee Atwater’s attacks on the last Democratic governor in our state. In 1988, however, it was a third-party group that levied its Willie Horton attack on Dukakis – not George H.W. Bush. It may be that the bi-partisan campaign reform act (so-called McCain-Feingold) precludes such third-party ads. Even so, it defies belief that a candidate herself would allow such ads to go out under her name. The general rule of gubernatorial campaigns is for the candidate to look gubernatorial – or presidential in the case of a presidential race.


As an operative, you never want to put your candidate in a position where she herself must attack her opponent and stand by a sleazy ad in a political debate. A good example was the 2000 campaign in New Hampshire where my ‘friend’ Grover Norquist ran ads morphing Senator John McCain’s face into President Clinton’s. When McCain called Bush on it during a debate, Bush played dumb and denied any involvement. He did the same thing when I pressed him on it following the debate. When Healey got into the weeds defending those ads, she only diminished herself further.


My only interpretation of this unprecedented campaign: that is, a candidacy where the candidate never introduces herself, never runs an ad telling the public about her background, gives voters no “story” or “narrative” to latch on about who she is. That is always my first question in writing political profiles. All candidates need to lay this positive foundation so they can weather the difficulties of a political campaign – and give voters a reason to vote for them. Either Healey’s advisers are unaware of this basic fact or something is blocking the Healey campaign – or the candidate herself – from telling this story. I have a couple theories about this. One is that her campaign team has no confidence in any story Healey would tell pro-actively. Another is that Healey has difficulty talking about herself.


Finally, I am astounded by how ill-served Healey has been by her 2002 running mate. Other than appearing with Healey in a patronizing press conference yesterday announcing the removal of tolls on the Mass Pike (haven’t we heard this before?) Romney has been MIA at best regarding Healey. His attacks on Massachusetts around the country have put her in a difficult position as evidenced by her awkward response to Alison King at tonight’s debate. One has to wonder whether Romney even wants to be followed by yet another Republican governor. Perhaps he wants to reinforce his uniqueness as a Republican in Massachusetts in a 2008 presidential race. I view this as a mistake of the governor’s. Should Patrick win, he will gain access to the all the resources of state government. Whatever skeletons Fehrnstrom et al have been keeping in the closet are sure to come out. Any Patrick Administration will be a treasure trove of the opposition research Republicans in Massachusetts love so much for Romney’s Democratic opponent if he gets the nomination.


As I wrote in The Wall Street Journal in 2002, Romney had an opportunity to be a Reagan for Massachusetts, rebuilding the GOP in Massachusetts. Romney failed at this – if he ever even tried. Within two years, he began running for the Republican nomination for president. While I carry no brief for the state Republican party, the ability of any governor to have real influence in Massachusetts hinges on whether his or her vetoes can survive in the legislature. Without the requisite number of votes, the governor is merely a public relations figure with executive powers. Romney seemed untroubled by this. Now he looks askance as a candidate who is essentially his creation, the former chair of the Republican Party added to the GOP ticket in 2002 to offset the Democratic nominee Shannon O’Brien goes down in flames. It’s slick, for sure. But there’s something disconcerting in the way he’s skating toward the presidential primary season while Healey gets hammered.


One Response to “The Ghost of Lee Atwater”

  1. Joe Biden on Obama..among other matters… « Biodun Iginla’s Weblog Says:

    […] The Ghost of Lee Atwater […]

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