Back in April, I attended the Gubernatorial Forum hosted by Progressive Massachusetts during its Second Annual Policy Conference. During the session with Coakley, the moderator (Jordan Berg-Powers) asked her how, especially in the aftermath of her poorly run special election campaign against Scott Brown, she planned to win the primary and allay concerns that she wouldn’t be able to beat Charlie Baker. To her credit, she didn’t at all shrink from the question. She spoke at length about how, among other things, she and her family thought long and hard about the decision, and how she had a great organization working for her.
And then with that damned-near-patented, nonchalant shrug of hers, she said something that caught my attention (starting roughly at the 2:25-mark): “Aaand, for what’s it’s worth, if you look at the polls, I’m way ahead in the primary. And I’m the only Democratic candidate who can beat Charlie Baker.” And then, OF COURSE, she immediately backtracked somewhat, and then muddied the point altogether: “I don’t rely on those polls, to be honest with you. And I know that they change, but they haven’t change since last Fall. And …”
… And to me, right now, these somewhat off-hand comments speak volumes as to why she lost, and why Massachusetts Democrats lost.
She didn’t lose because of a lack of effort or hustle, as was the case back in 2010. She didn’t lose because she was “icy” or some other personality defect. And she didn’t lose because she’s “a loser” or “Martha Chokely,” or that she resembled anything like that sort of cheap, inane, and mean-spirited analysis. In fact, I suspect in many ways she ran her campaign exactly as she wanted to: she rode the strengths of her name recognition and record of public service, minimized gaffes, and worked very hard.
But she lost because her campaign lacked substance when it came to the issues and policy. She dodged taking difficult stances, and she failed to detail much of an agenda. Think about it from the perspective of the average voter: she clearly expressed support for Pre-K education and earned sick time–both great things, mind you–but what else? She had little to say about the state’s most pressing issues, like the high cost of housing and health care. And she seemed absurdly afraid to say anything about taxation. (Don Berwick, of course, had a lot to say about these issues. Just take a look, for example, at the videos of his session from the same forum. The same goes for Evan Falchuk, too, by the way.) In the general, she, like Baker, moved to the middle to such an extent that, as this great WBUR editorial put it, the two “often seem[ed] to be scrimmaging between the 40 yard lines.” In her case, voters eventually took notice and wondered again if she cared.
While Coakley benefited from a rather obnoxious local media feedback loop (her name recognition drove polls, which in turn drove coverage, which drove her name recognition, etc.) that was difficult for the other primary candidates to cut through, it didn’t have to be this way. Democratic activists could and should have done more to demand that the election and her campaign be more issue-based. And while Baker deserves credit for doing quite a bit to improve his surface appeal, it wasn’t inevitable that Coakley was going to lose to him, nor even that this race was going to be close. And no, this loss isn’t the fault of Evan Falchuk or his supporters–even those would-be Coakley supporters who almost always vote for Democrats. To the extent that Coakley drove away voters with her lack of policy substance, that’s her fault, and she didn’t in any way deserve them.
Who we Democrats in this state deserve, and who we should support going forward, are progressives who are willing to distinguish themselves and clearly define a bold agenda. If we fail to embrace such candidates, we now face the possibility of a serious exodus from the party.