The Massachusetts Curse

Michael Dukakis; Mitt Romney; John Kerry (Getty Images)
Michael Dukakis; Mitt Romney; John Kerry (Getty Images)

What is it about Massachusetts that produces such lousy presidential candidates? Has some strange brand of bipartisan political devolution been at work in the Bay State since the heyday of John F. Kennedy, bringing forth such hopeless hopefuls as Michael Dukakis, John Kerry and, last and least, Mitt Romney? Or is it, as Rick Santorum might suggest, the devil?


Whatever its cause, all three of these Massachusetts figures have suffered from the same politically fatal affliction: the inability to connect with average voters. Dukakis, you may remember, lost whatever chance he had of winning the White House by responding to the question, "If [your wife] were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?" with a tepid reaffirmation of his lifelong opposition to capital punishment. Then Kerry, the richest man in the U.S. Senate at the time, provided unmistakable evidence of the distance between his effete lifestyle and the unwashed masses by asking for Swiss cheese on his Philly cheesesteak sandwich.

Now we have Romney, campaigning in his home state of Michigan, bragging about his wife's Cadillacs and his friendship with billionaire sponsors of NASCAR racing teams, while proclaiming that General Motors and Chrysler should have been allowed to go bankrupt instead of being rescued by the government. With clumsy rhetoric like that, is it any wonder that on Tuesday, he only narrowly eked out a win in Michigan against the looniest extremist politician currently on the loose in America? (I refer, of course, to Santorum.)

Romney's tendency to portray himself as a real-life Thurston Howell III (for you youngsters, he was the fatuous super-rich buffoon on the TV show Gilligan's Island) brings to mind a series of anatomical metaphors. He has a tin ear. He also has a foot in his mouth. He keeps tripping over himself.

It also raises serious questions about the only rationale that Romney has ever put forth for his White House aspirations: that as a successful businessman, he knows better than President Barack Obama how to get the economy back on track and put millions of Americans back to work.

That assertion is in serious doubt after Romney doubled down on his claim that GM and Chrysler should have been allowed to go through a managed bankruptcy financed by private capital instead of benefiting from an $80 billion federal bailout. That view, to be blunt about it, is absurd. As Steven Rattner, who led Obama's auto-industry task force has pointed out, no private financing was available for a restructuring. Even Romney's old firm, Bain Capital, declined to participate in a bailout deal.

If the federal government, starting with President George W. Bush and continuing with Obama, had not intervened, GM and Chrysler would have gone down the tubes, with the loss of millions of jobs. And Romney, along with his fellow Republicans, would have been bashing Obama for failing to take action to save a vital U.S. industry.


That's pretty much the same message that Obama was pounding home the day of the Michigan primary in a rousing address to the United Auto Workers. "Some politicians even said we should 'let Detroit go bankrupt,' " the president declared as the crowd booed. "Think about what that choice would have meant for this country, if we had turned our backs on you, if America had thrown in the towel. GM and Chrysler wouldn't exist today."

Most voters in Michigan agree. That means that even if Romney prevails in his continuing race to the bottom with Santorum (whose crackpot remarks on a variety of social issues — including contraception, the separation of church and state and the value of a college education — are dragging the contest into such a despond of sanctimonious nonsense that even staunch right-wingers are starting to recoil), he has blown any chance he ever had of prying Michigan, a swing state in recent elections, away from Obama this November.


Nor does his solid victory in Tuesday's Arizona primary necessarily bode well for his chances in that state in the general election, when Hispanic voters riled by Romney's tough talk on undocumented immigrants will flock to the polls to express their anger by voting Democratic.

Next week brings Super Tuesday, when 10 states, including Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee and Virginia, will hold their primaries. Unless Romney does a better job of dealing with his rivals in those battles than he did in Michigan, he's going to start to look even more like Dukakis and Kerry: just another loser from Massachusetts.


Jack White keeps an eye on right-wing politics for The Root.

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is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.