In Defense of Martha
Massachusetts’ problem with women candidates.
LAST JANUARY, MARTHA COAKLEY lost a special election to an affable fellow with a handsome face, a thin résumé, and an independent streak, a defeat that got her branded as the worst campaigner in American history. “The Incredible Incompetence of Martha Coakley,” read one headline in the final days of the campaign. “Coakley is like the Waterworld of American politics, an indelible symbol of failure and, yes, arrogance and stupidity,” Jonathan Alter wrote in Newsweek.
Nine months later, Delaware Republican Mike Castle lost a safe primary to a Sarah Palin look-alike with a fondness for witchcraft, a fixation on masturbation, and a raft of financial troubles — a defeat that got the moderate congressman tagged as an undeserving victim of public rage against political insiders. “Castle Should Run for Senate Despite Loss in the Primary,” read one headline. “Castle, the potential write-in candidate, has unique and proven appeal to Democrats and independents. For Republicans, such a person is not so much a spoiler as he is a savior,” wrote another Newsweek writer, Alan Mascarenhas.
In politics, it is never advisable to be ahead of a wave. But now that the angry, tea-colored surf has swallowed “invulnerable” candidates from Alaska to Florida, it’s time to acknowledge something: No Democrat would have fared any better than Martha Coakley did against Scott Brown. In fact, only one thing would have been different had Mike Capuano been the one to lose to the telegenic Everyman last January. Fellow Democrats would have rallied to his side — with the same mix of loyalty and regret that prompted so many Republicans to bemoan a political climate that cost Castle a seat they felt he was “entitled” to in the United States Senate.
Instead, the venomous attacks on Coakley transformed an accomplished public figure into a punch line. But the mistakes she made — from the television ads (too late, too negative) to the gaffes (Schilling, Afghanistan) — can’t explain the anger directed at her in defeat. What can? The disdain for women politicians that’s ingrained in Massachusetts’ cultural DNA.
LET’S CONSIDER THE BILL of particulars that, according to conventional wisdom, explains how Coakley managed the unthinkable: losing a seat held by Senator Edward M. Kennedy for 47 years.
She was a “diva,” contemptuous of the people because she didn’t campaign in the snow outside Fenway Park after an open-air Bruins game. The venerable ballyard might well be Boston’s most sacred sporting venue, but it is no more legitimate a campaign stop for greeting voters than the coffee shops, union halls, community centers, and retirement villages where Coakley shook just as many hands as Brown.
She was an “idiot,” scornful of Red Sox Nation because she misidentified Curt Schilling as a Yankees fan during a radio appearance. Within weeks of that egregious gaffe, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino attributed a game-winning field goal in the 2002 Super Bowl to Jason Varitek instead of to Adam Vinatieri, while Scott Brown, the infallible standard against which all political aspirants must now be measured, asked a Capitol Hill reporter whether the Buffalo Sabres, then set to meet the Bruins in the first round of the NHL playoffs, were a Washington team.