The Caucus of Our Discontent

For the Massachusetts Democrats' state caucuses, the emerging theme seems to be the failure of a theme to emerge.

It’s important to remember—to the minimal extent that anything is important about the Massachusetts Democrats’ state caucuses—that they are far from a universally consistent experience. Dozens upon dozens of these gatherings take place over the course of a month, in sprawling towns and urban neighborhoods, and they are vastly different from one another in size, tenor, activity, and outcome. At one, a machine-run ward perfunctorily elects a local pol’s lieutenants, who haven’t the slightest interest in deciding their own preferences among candidates they’ve barely heard of. At another, those gubernatorial candidates mingle in hopes of persuading earnest ideologues to choose theirs in a battle of competing slates. Elsewhere, the few who showed up sit and read while waiting to see if anyone else will show up to claim the remaining delegate slots.

But despite the differences, the caucuses do take on an overall feel in years of open battle for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Ask any veteran about the last such caucuses, in 2006, and their eyes will glaze a little as they utter just two magical words—”Deval Patrick”—a bit like your Italian-American aunt recalling her first time seeing the young Sinatra on stage. Then mention the year 2002, and those eyes will snap into a gleeful malevolence worthy of a James Bond villain. “Battle royale,” one Democrat wistfully reminisced to me Saturday of that year’s caucuses. She had been with “the president”—then-state Senate president Thomas Birmingham—against traitorous former allies now supporting “the treasurer”—Shannon O’Brien; the two sides united only in their disgust of the hordes of unfamiliar newcomers, chanting for Robert Reich and brandishing proof that they were registered and eligible to participate.

I have, so far, visited seven caucuses, and heard from attendees of many more. The emerging theme seems to be the failure of a theme to emerge. Much as I predicted, “uncommitted” seems to be handily leading the delegate count—and most people seem to believe that those are A) largely genuinely uncommitted and undecided party activists, and B) more free-thinking, independent activists than machine-controlled order-takers.

We’ll see how true that proves; perhaps we’ll discover that a remarkable number of those uncommitteds are teachers union members who will decide en masse on the heels of an MTA endorsement announcement. Maybe delegates all over Boston will wake up one day to instructions from the new mayor’s people, and those in Worcester will get similar calls from Petty, or Glodis, or Murray, or McGovern, or Fresolo, or whoever turns out to have the juice these days.

Who knows. Meanwhile, there are some storylines emerging that might loom large in retrospect: Steve Grossman’s organizational strength; the first signs of a genuine grassroots network of Martha Coakley support; the persistence of Don Berwick and Juliette Kayyem; Joe Avellone’s search for the remains of the party’s once-powerful moderate urban Catholics.

For now, however, the story of the 2014 caucuses is indecision—the postponement of the battle to the spring. That’s not as satisfying to the veterans as the memories of 2006 and 2002, but it also might not be the worst thing for the party, and its eventual nominee.