David vs. David

Here’s some good news:  The race for Massachusetts governor is between two certified losers.

In one corner is the state’s attorney general, Martha Coakley, whose signature political achievement is having been defeated by Scott Brown in the 2010 Senate special election to succeed the late Ted Kennedy.

And in the other corner is businessman Charlie Baker, who ran for governor four years ago against the incumbent, Deval Patrick, and lost by six and a half points.

Of these two dubious distinctions, Coakley’s is widely viewed as the more embarrassing, owing (if nothing else) to her status as a Democrat in one of the most liberal states in the Union.  Then and now, it begs the question:  How inept of a candidate does one need to be to lose a statewide vote to a conservative, pick-up truck-driving good old boy in the land of the Kennedys?

Not that we should leave Baker, the Republican, off the hook.  In fact, before Patrick’s election in 2006, the commonwealth was presided over by Republican chief executives for 16 years running.  It may seem counterintuitive that Massachusetts voters would so regularly entrust the keys to the State House to members of the minority party—including one Willard Romney—but they did it nonetheless.

And so the gubernatorial race that will be decided on November 4 is as wide-open as one can be, and my fellow Bay State residents ought to consider themselves highly fortunate to be faced with these two pitiful failures from which we have to choose.

It is fairly well-known among political and historical junkies how personal setbacks tend to turn losing political candidates into victors—and, with any luck, into considerably better people.

Richard Nixon endured two bitter electoral defeats, in 1960 and 1962, before roaring back in 1968, having evidently learned the secret to securing the American people’s trust and affection (undeservingly, as it turned out).  Ronald Reagan lost the Republican nomination for president twice, in 1968 and 1976, before finding his golden moment in 1980.

More recently, Mitt Romney learned a thing or two in 2008 about how to weave his way through the Republican primaries four years later, even if it wasn’t quite enough to carry him all the way to the White House.  Similarly, Hillary Clinton demonstrated a definite adaptability in appealing to the Democratic base in the course of the 2008 primaries against Barack Obama.  Most analysts agree:  Obama’s success forced Clinton to become a better candidate.

For all that separates these disparate test cases, they all demonstrate that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection can be applied to the unnatural world of electoral politics:  Faced with past and potentially future defeat, a candidate must either change his or her behavior or die.

Oftentimes in politics, it’s all just a matter of luck.  For instance, Nixon in 1968 had the enormous built-in advantage of the nationwide disillusionment with Lyndon Johnson and the Democratic Party, whereas in 1960 Nixon himself represented the outgoing administration against an appealing young whippersnapper, John Kennedy.  Same for Reagan in 1980, running against a rather feckless Jimmy Carter.  Sometimes the country is simply in the mood for an insurgent, and all you have to do is play the part.

What makes the current contest in Massachusetts unique and interesting—and, in my view, potentially welcoming—is that both candidates (not just one) can be considered underdogs and would-be “comeback” stories, since both of them lost the last time around.

(Note:  Coakley did, in fact, win her last race for attorney general, but it was not nearly as competitive or consequential as the Senate campaign against Brown.  As such, nobody cares.)

Because of this dynamic, neither candidate can take comfort in any assumption of “inevitability,” or even of merely being the front-runner.  Accordingly, neither Baker nor Coakley has any cause to take anything for granted or become complacent or arrogant.  They have both sobered up, as it were, and understand that votes will truly need to be earned.  That the office of governor should be considered neither a birthright nor a foregone conclusion.

In short, both candidates will need to take the race seriously, and very probably will.  In a state that is traditionally dominated by one political party—a state in which all nine sitting congresspersons are Democrats, six of whom do not currently face a Republican opponent—this is something to savor and to celebrate, for it may not happen again anytime soon.

And what a shame if it doesn’t.

By all means, a state in which a supermajority of the public agrees about the major issues of the day ought to elect public officials who share those views.  However, this does not negate the necessity to debate such issues, forcefully and thoroughly, all the way to Election Day (and beyond).  And the most effective way to do this is to have a serious and formidable member of the opposition with whom to argue, forcing the campaign’s presumed “favorite” not to coast to victory on a wave of entitlement.

In a battle between two people with a great deal to prove, neither of whom can really be considered the favorite at all, the commonwealth of Massachusetts may, for the next two months, play host to a rare and real breakout of democracy within its borders.  I sure hope we’re ready for it.

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