Timmy Falling Down The Well

So, this Tim Murray thing.

I've been steering clear of this controversy, not least because I know I can't resist the inappropriate driving-related puns like the one I just made, but mostly because I'm not really sure what to make of it.

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You see, a lieutenant governor scandal/controversy is an odd duck, because the LG job is an odd one. In physics terms, the LG has "potential" rather than "kinetic" energy -- like a ball sitting at the top of a ramp. The ball is just sitting there, doing nothing to nobody; but because it's at the top of the ramp, it has stored-up potential to do a lot in the future. 

Likewise, almost nobody cares at all about Tim Murray's fitness to conduct his duties in office, because the LG has no duties. (At least, no official ones that anybody cares about.) People do, however, care a LOT about Murray's stored-up potential, partly in the sense that he can influence activity inside the Patrick administration, but mostly in the sense that he is a likely future governor.

And here's an important thing: Murray uses that stored-up potential political energy to influence people to build that potential energy even further -- in this horribly strained analogy, to push the ball further up the ramp. They raise money for him; they put his people in key positions; they help his allies' campaigns; they don't assist his potential opponents; and so on. All of that makes it seem more and more likely that he will become governor, which gives him more potential political energy, which makes more people want to join the effort to build it even more. The ball goes higher and higher up the ramp.

But the perceived likelihood of Murray becoming governor involves the calculus of conventional wisdom regarding his ability to win election in 2014. If his current troubles start eroding that perception, his potential political energy drops -- regardless of whether these insiders think that the troubles say anything about his fitness for office. The people making that analysis know that when it comes to big, high-profile gubernatorial elections, voters judge on a whole range of character issues beyond just those issues that they, or the candidate, may think are relevant to performing the duties of office.

So, in other words, when the Boston Globe does a big story tying together the car crash, McLaughlin, and patronage hackery (a la the Zimini story), people doing their mental political calculations begin to conclude that this is going to continue to be a major public-image problem for Murray for some time to come.

The big thing, so far, has been Deval Patrick very solidly saying, and signalling, that he's fully supporting Murray. That has maintained the impression that Murray is still well propped up high on that ramp.

I think that early and enthusiastic Patrick support was a big mistake, both for Patrick and for Murray. For one (probably minor) thing, the contrast with Patrick's cold kicking of Ron Bell to the curb, over his driving-related allegations, has infuriated some people, particularly in the African-American community. But also, it was a response appropriate for a story that was going to just go away in a day or two. Since it hasn't, it has left the Governor boxed in. He didn't say that he needed to wait for all the facts to come in, so it would look bad if facts coming in change his conclusion. He also can't use any good news to signal that concerns have been allayed, since he claimed that there were no concerns.

Basically, once Patrick squeezed his arm around Murray, there was nowhere left to go but away from him -- and everybody will be watching for that to happen.

If it does, that could easily be a turning point (which might come regardless) in which people stop believing in Murray's potential political energy, and thus stop helping push that ball up the ramp -- leading to further decline in his potential energy, leading to more abandonment, leading to the ball rolling further and further down that ramp, at ever-increasing speed, eventually skidding on black ice into a railing at 100 miles per hour. Metaphorically speaking.

I don't think we've hit that tipping point yet. But today's Globe story was a call of "look out below!" 

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