Liberal Criticism

By Jon Keller | Boston Magazine |

Why has Mitt Romney’s approval rating in Massachusetts fallen through the basement?

 Continuing anger over the way Romney uses his home state as a national political punch line, for one thing. Being a conservative Republican here, he loves to tell presidential campaign audiences, was like “being a cattle rancher at a vegetarian convention,” a joke that echoes the more serious indictment of the state’s all-blue political culture he threw at Ted Kennedy during their 1994 Senate showdown. “I was in Dorchester not long ago,” snapped Romney. “Someone said, ‘This is Kennedy country,’ and they handed a sign to me in front of my face. And I looked around and I saw boarded-up buildings, and I saw jobs leaving, and I said, ‘It looks like it.’” 

Kennedy country. The political establishment was outraged. Romney was bluntly deriding the core political identity of not just the Kennedy family, but an entire generation of Democrats. Kennedy country.  Uttered with the same unvarnished contempt a Massachusetts Democrat would typically reserve for references to Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush.

But looking around Massachusetts today, the unvarnished truth is that Romney’s 13-year-old point still stands, and lends credence to his current mockery. Kennedy country: working-class neighborhoods endowed with equal rights and opportunity courtesy of an enlightened, activist government. America made “livable.” That’s the vision so many boomers inherited from the Kennedy family. But the Kennedys’ most important vow—of a government in touch with and devoted to the working classes and the poor, delivering on its commitment to improve their lives and enhance their opportunities—has turned out to be a broken promise. 

More than a decade after Romney gave his caustic take on the Kennedy legacy, the north Dorchester neighborhood where he was heckled by Kennedy partisans is still plagued by abandoned buildings and joblessness. Drug abuse and its criminal side effects are rampant. After rave reviews for Boston’s anticrime “miracle” programs during the 1990s, violent street crime is once again soaring in north Dorchester and other poor city neighborhoods. In Holyoke, the impoverished old mill city in the state’s chronically depressed western region that hosted that infamous Kennedy/Romney debate, more than half the children, most of them Puerto Rican immigrants, live below the poverty line. Statewide, white-collar job growth has been incremental during a time of robust national economic recovery; good blue-collar jobs, especially in the vanishing manufacturing sector, are even scarcer. In recent years Massachusetts has twice scored an unwanted distinction: the only state in the nation to lose net population, as mobile residents vote with their feet on the state’s sky-high cost of living, dwindling opportunities, and deteriorating quality of life. The Democrats from Ted Kennedy on down who’ve had near-total control of the state for three decades talk a big game about their vision of a better deal for the downtrodden. But their abysmal track record tells a different tale. 

 What happened? Cue the Romney joke writers. Under the virtually uncontested control of baby boomer Democratic leaders who fancied themselves architects of the Kennedy blueprint—the “vegetarians” of Romney’s gag—Massachusetts is a diorama of the “two Americas” imagery favored by New Frontier populists like John Edwards. Here, people with good educations and well-paying careers live the good life. But not far from their favored beaches, biking trails, and bistros lies a different Massachusetts, a place where the poor lack hope and live in Appalachia-style squalor, where even middle-class workers with salaries well above the national median struggle to afford inferior housing, hold jobs that barely subsidize survival, and wait in vain for meaningful help with their plight from state government. Visitors enjoy the shrines to our historic profiles in courage, the minutemen, the founding fathers, John F. Kennedy. But the stops on their tour are never more than a few blocks away from profiles in discouragement and mismanagement, the blighted neighborhoods and stunted hopes of the state’s poor and working classes. Our tangible symbols of the best in American politics—from the Freedom Trail’s walk through the breeding grounds of American democracy, to the Kennedy Library’s elaborate homage to modern-day Democratic liberalism—sit in the shadow of appalling symbols of governmental failure like the Big Dig, that fatally dangerous $15 billion monument to the Massachusetts political culture’s greed and carelessness.

 Candidate Romney is just the latest in a string of self-serving pols to use Massachusetts as a prop for their own advancement. But his barbs carry unwelcome truth. Kennedy country is a boom-era marketing sham, the retro brand name for an impotent snake oil that doesn’t deliver relief for the working-class people it purports to help the most. And that reality bites harder and deeper than its annoying exploitation by yet another Bay State boomer on the make.

 Adapted from The Bluest State: How Democrats Created the Massachusetts Blueprint for Political Disaster by Jon Keller, published September 2007 by St. Martin’s Press. Copyright 2007 by the author.

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