GOP & The Economy, Local Edition

A couple of weeks ago I posted about the conundrum the national Republican party is in if, as increasingly seems likely, the strong economic recovery continues through the coming five or six months. Yesterday, that problem loudly manifested itself in Massachusetts, with very good economic growth news, which you can read about in your daily paper of choice.

The facts on the ground, not the ones in the papers, are what matters, but nevertheless the timing of these reports seems to me particularly fortuitous for Governor Deval Patrick. It's an accepted truth in Massachusetts politics that nobody pays attention between Memorial Day and Labor Day -- that's probably why there's been such an uptick in attention-getting activity in the gubernatorial campaigns in the past few weeks, with the official start of Cape vacation season fast approaching. We've seen the "official" launch of the Patrick campaign, the Republican Governors Association anti-Cahill ad blitz, Cahill's aggressive posturing, and the Baker "Had Enough" tour. Everyone wants to set public attitudes in the race to their advantage before the big lull. A slew of positive stories about job growth right now has to be a big boost for Patrick.

There's also been some evidence that the recovery is starting to change those attitudes on the ground -- at least, if the recent Rasmussen poll is accurate. Patrick's big jump, if it's real, presumably reflects increasing optimism about the economy, or at least declining pessimism.

My question in that earlier post was: what do Republicans do if in fact the economy improves? And, are they even capable of recognizing, and adapting to, that reality?

It's a real stumper for the Baker and Cahill campaigns. You'll note in those news reports that Cahill went silent yesterday, while Baker gave canned 'not good enough' statements -- statements that didn't exactly resound with the "Had Enough" theme. You don't exactly picture a red-faced, podium-pounding, not-gonna-take-it-anymore pol shouting “Any time people are getting back to work it’s good news... but until we get serious about reforming and restructuring state government and services, taxpayers are not going to see the kind of turnaround they deserve.’’

Neither challengers' camp tried to deny the good news. Baker's and Cahill's candidacies are heavily dependent on their presumed seriousness on fiscal matters -- Baker as the former Weld/Cahill budget-master, and Cahill as state treasurer -- so it would be dangerous for them to risk those reputations by maintaining a fiction against the growing weight of data and public sentiment. Outlying arbiters of Republican opinion -- folks like Holly Robichaud, Howie Carr, Charlie Manning, Rob Eno, etc. -- have no such concern. Not to pick on Eno, but he spent yesterday Tweeting attempts to poke holes in the day's economic reports. That kind of thing, and Robichaud's repititious mentions of old Herald-headlining gripes, are good for keeping up the negative enthusiasms (if that's not an oxymoron) of the base, but don't penetrate much beyond that.

Those outsiders will also insist that none of the credit for recovery goes to Patrick -- again, fine to placate the believers, but nothing in political history suggests that voters will do anything other than place all credit or blame for economic conditions on the chief executive. Anyway, as soon as you start making that argument you concede the underlying point that the economy is in fact doing well, which presumably the challengers would like to avoid doing as long as possible. And, it's not like Cahill or Baker can take any credit for it.

Who knows how the economy will go, but if we do emerge from Labor Day with eight or so consecutive months of positive jobs growth in the state, continuing signs of activity across industries and regions, and a general easing of peoples' fears about their near-term situation... what do Baker and Cahill focus their messages on?

Better fiscal management of the state budget, as Baker emphasized in today's papers? Go to town, Charlie; there's nothing more reliable in state politics than the quadrennial claims of the out-of-power-party gubernatorial candidate that they have identified waste, redundancy, and other inefficiencies, that happen to add up to the projected budget deficit and/or cost of new campaign proposals. In 2002, Romney did it with such brazen cynicism that, when the projected deficit essentially doubled late in the campaign, he simply doubled the amount of savings he claimed to have identified. Patrick did it in 2006, with a sort of pathetic charm -- it wasn't clear whether it was a purely cynical ploy for votes, or if he actually believed that the governor of Massachusetts has the ability to dismantle the legislature's carefully constructed realms of power and patronage. It was like watching a slightly-too-old child putting out milk and cookies for Santa, and wondering whether she still believes, or is maintaining the charade for the sake of her parents.

In any event, nobody in the great and general polity really cares about the budget deficit, and the restructuring of services, so long as everyone is promising with a straight face to do something about it. It's an issue that, at best, can tie into fear of tax hikes, and general anti-Beacon Hill sentiment -- speaking of which, I think that Baker and the state GOP should really be plastering DiMasi and Wilkerson all over this election year, and I don't know why they're being shy about it so far.

My best stab at advice, I think, is that Baker, Cahill, and the state Republican Party need to feed more directly into Patrick's personal unpopularity -- find a way to characterize him (a la wind-surfing flip-flopper John Kerry) that can dog the guv on a consistent basis, regardless of the day's news and campaign events. That might help prevent voters from shifting to support him, even if they're feeling better about the economy.

But if they wait until September to start that, I think it will be too late. Clearly, very large numbers of Bay Staters have a sense that they dislike Patrick -- maybe that's ultimately because they're gloomy about the economy, but for now that's mixed in with other reasons. His opponents need to hone in on those other reasons, synthesize them into a strong message, and start driving that message into people's mental association with Patrick. Then, that negative notion of Patrick can survive after the economic reasons for disliking the guv fade.

Your thoughts?

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