Running on Empty

“I said to my wife, 'Honey, why do people seem to take such an instant dislike to me?' And she shrugged and said: 'Saves time.'”
— Robert Reich campaign stump-speech joke

Here comes Robert Reich, marching into Malden's Irish-American Club for the monthly Chamber of Commerce breakfast, on a mission to win friends, influence people, and prove his wife was only joking. And for the first few minutes of his visit, the much-touted magnetism of the economics guru and former U.S. secretary of labor seems to be working just fine.

The first folks to greet Reich are visibly excited by his visit. It isn't every day that a former cabinet secretary and ubiquitous TV talking head pops in for scrambled eggs and home-fried rhetoric. Chamber official Maurene Campbell is first to greet the 4-foot-10 Reich, patting him on his shoulder and exclaiming: “You're cute.” State Representative Paul Donato, a Democrat representing wards in Malden and Medford, pumps his hand and says he's looking forward to hearing the candidate's “pointed remarks with regard to what's going on economically.” There are more smiles of recognition and a few requests for autographs. Reich's formal introduction to the crowd of about 200 local pols and business owners is met with warm applause.

It's as friendly a greeting as Reich and the disgruntled liberals who are the core of his longshot campaign could hope for. Twelve years after Dukakis-era tax-and-spend liberalism was decisively repudiated by Massachusetts voters, and a decade since Bill Clinton successfully led the national and local Democratic Party on a safari to the political center in search of electoral victories, Reich represents the first remotely viable ultraliberal candidate the Massachusetts left has had.

How liberal is Reich? So fiscally liberal he doesn't object to raiding surplus from the Social Security trust fund for money to spend on social programs; so socially liberal he won't unequivocally condemn the Dukakis administration for letting murderer Willie Horton out on furlough from his life sentence to rape and pillage; so culturally liberal, his favorite place to eat is Cambridge's trendy Hi-Rise Bread Co.

All of which places Reich several counties to the left of the electorate in Malden, home to Social Security-dependent seniors, crime-conscious blue-collar residents, and plain folk who think Hi-Rise Bread is what the suits who work at the Prudential Center earn. And that's a problem. Because if he hopes to compete in next month's Democratic primary, let alone in the November general election, Reich must expand his appeal beyond the narrow liberal base that barely got him on the party ballot.

Job one: harvest your share of votes from the fertile soil of cities like Malden, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly six to one. For Reich, whose campaign mantra is a vow to “challenge traditional ways of thinking and talk in detail about how we can strengthen our economy, get better jobs, and fundamentally improve our schools and healthcare,” Malden should be a land of plenty. The city's surge in new voters over the past few years, most of them shunning any party affiliation, is a promising market for a self-styled outsider who has never sought elective office. And Reich's expressively articulated outrage over income disparities and the struggles of the American working class ought to find a receptive audience in a city where, boom times or bust, unemployment consistently hovers around the statewide average.

But Reich's introduction to the chamber crowd turns out to be the high-water mark of his visit. Truth be told, he doesn't know very much about Malden; earlier this year, he identified it as the home of the famous Malden Mills, which is actually located in Lawrence. And it's quickly clear that Reich doesn't have a clue about how to connect with this crucial constituency. His generic litany of economic woe, unaccompanied by any compelling new ideas of what to do about it, quickly loses many in the crowd; heads begin to droop. “I can see your long faces,” observes Reich. “I don't want to make this a doom-and-gloom session here.” So Reich swings into the spin that has — in an effort to claim the reformist high ground and broaden his base beyond the black-turtleneck set — replaced the expansive-government vision that was the early heart of his campaign: This fast-talking professor is just the man to clean out Beacon Hill's Augean stables of waste and fraud. “How many of you think there is not too much patronage and nepotism and cronyism in state government?” he asks in an attempt to win over the crowd.

Embarrassed silence. This is a room full of people with connections to, and reliance upon, the political status quo. They are certainly not among the alienated left, fed up with resistance to campaign finance reform or, for that matter, the talk-radio right, sick of Suffolk County workers getting Evacuation Day off. They burst out with laughter and applause as popular Democratic Malden Mayor Richard Howard, seated right beside Reich at the head table, leaves the candidate speechless by raising his hand in smirking defiance of Reich's rhetoric.

No doubt about it: Reich Magic has failed to grip the Irish-American Club. The only lingering question underlying the postgame reviews is a public-safety one. Shouldn't somebody call the bomb squad? “I have questions about his electability, I have questions about whether or not he may be too far to the left,” says Representative Donato. “He really is too liberal for Malden,” adds City Councilor Martin Gately. Concludes Mayor Howard: “He does have an uphill battle.”

Oh, how the Mighty mouse of the 2002 governor's race has fallen. His fundraising is anemic. The healthy poll numbers that helped prompt his entry into the race have barely moved since, a sign of failure to convert name recognition into momentum. Reich was hailed at the outset as a principled liberal savior, an insurgent outsider set to shock a moribund political establishment with high-voltage ideas and charisma, a little big man who would dwarf the garden-variety Democrats in the field. Instead, the Reich campaign has offered up a poorly prepared latter-day Wizard of Oz, whose robust first impression has suffered shrinkage as the surprisingly uninspired talking head behind the curtain has been revealed. “He's well past his prime,” observes longtime Democratic activist and consultant Dan Payne, who is unaffiliated with any gubernatorial campaign.

What happened? The early excitement over Reich's candidacy, climaxing with his unexpectedly strong showing in the February 2 party caucuses, “was spontaneous combustion,” Payne says. “It was older liberals, the Birkenstock and New York Times crowd, who wanted to make a protest, and they created the illusion that Reich was very strong.” But by barely eking out the 15 percent support he needed to get on the ballot from the left-leaning crowd at the Democratic convention in June, Reich demonstrated that, as Payne notes, “he hasn't really expanded his base very much” beyond the true believers.

After all, what is there for non-acolytes to believe in? “I have some very clear values and beliefs and I have articulated them for a long time, and nobody should be surprised by what they are,” insists Reich. “I am a person who stands by what I say.”

Not quite. For instance, in a national commentary last fall decrying the wave of post-September 11 layoffs, pundit Reich called for a “circuit-breaker” law to prevent large but struggling companies from laying off more than a fixed percentage of their workers within a given period. Would he consider promoting that idea in Massachusetts, candidate Reich was asked just a few months later? “No, no, no, no, no . . . sometimes in my writings I purposely try to be provocative to get a discussion going. Everything I've written should not be an indication of exactly what I'm planning to do as governor.”

This caveat casts new perspective on Reich's record of support for President Clinton's free trade policies. As a cabinet secretary, Reich publicly supported the idea of a borderless world market. In a January 2000 assessment of the Clinton presidency, he termed Clinton's successful advocacy of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) his “first great battle,” adding, admiringly: “Historians will note that Bill Clinton went to the mat for free trade.” But come last May, Reich, desperate to extract his 15 percent from the labor-dominated party convention, was giving an entirely different spin to a gathering of the state AFL-CIO. “When I was secretary of labor, President Clinton — let me repeat this, President Clinton — was the one who supported NAFTA. . . When the president wants to support NAFTA, his secretary of labor is going to support NAFTA publicly.”

Robert Reich, mute conscientious objector to NAFTA — yet another in a long line of “blatant falsehoods that come out of his mouth,” says one Reich competitor, former state Senator Warren Tolman, the race's only clean elections candidate. And that observation is nothing new to those who worked alongside Reich during his years in Washington. Reich revised and apologized for his self-serving 1997 memoir of his term as labor secretary, Locked in the Cabinet, after journalists caught him fabricating events and dialogue to cast himself in a favorable light. (Reich blames the discrepancies on faulty memory.)

No doubt the memoir Reich will inevitably write of his 2002 gubernatorial campaign will cast him as the altruistic victim of a reform-resistant political culture and a scalp-hungry press. Chances are it won't acknowledge the pandering, the indifferent knowledge of local detail, or the pedestrian policy statements echoing existing legislative proposals and even, at times, other candidates.

Don't expect it to be the autobiography of a new governor, either. In a multi-candidate field whose every horse has its warts, lightning could conceivably strike. But as Democratic primary voters move toward their September 17 verdict, disasters like Reich's lost morning in Malden are prompting growing numbers of them to reach the same timesaving conclusion as one local Democratic activist, who echoes the sentiment of Reich's wife in his campaign joke: “The more you get to know him, the less you like him.”