Why New York and Massachusetts Say No to Obama

The wacky idea that the much delayed trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed should take place in crowded lower Manhattan in the court near the World Trade Center demonstrated what's wrong with Obama-think. Obama, the former law professor, leans toward a high flown philosophic scenario where American justice and transparency would translate into inspiring world theatre. But the annual cost of the trial, which could easily last four years, is estimated at upward of 200 million dollars. The complicated security measures would cause commerce and the vitality of crowded lower Manhattan to come to a standstill, thus the area would end up twice punished: first by the 9/11 attacks, and now by a cumbersome wrongly placed trial. The protests from the city came in swift and loud, so it appears that the trial will take place elsewhere. Clearly Khalid Sheikh Mohammed trial must be transparent and swift, but should take place in a less vulnerable area. During the 9/11 nightmare years, Muslims, Hasidic Jews and other minorities managed to live in relative peace in Brooklyn, just across the river from the stench of the smoldering ruins. New York's moral strength isn't based in legalities, but in the honed habit of an immigrant city long used to accommodating multiple ethnicities and multiple religions.

I will get to the Massachusetts debacle in a minute, but in order to comprehend why the Democrats are losing presumably secure Democratic elections ("blue states" ) lets look at the mathematics. The margins by which Democrats have lost some of the presumed impregnable elections have been small. In Massachusetts, the thirty point lead that Democrat Attorney General Martha Coakley had a month before the Massachusetts special election to replace Senator Ted Kennedy's seat didn't metamorph overnight into a right wing block. So what happened? Obama folks simply stayed home -- they weren't energized.

Now, for a moment, back again to New York politics. It hasn't escaped the notice of blacks who so loyally backed Obama that he interfered negatively with three candidates who are black or part black. He tried to get Governor Patterson to step down. That didn't work. Then he prevented the city from having a Democrat as mayor by supporting Republican Bloomberg (albeit a moderate one) instead of the Democratic candidate Comptroller Bill Thompson. Now, he has come out against Harold Ford's entry into the Democratic primary for Hillary Clinton's old seat. In baseball, three strikes and you are out. Meanwhile Hillary Clinton, visibly exhausted from her grueling shuttling around the world, has indicated that she will not serve as Secretary of State for a second term. So again New York and New York State will probably go through all sorts of future rumblings. Bloomberg can't run for a fourth term as mayor -- that's one possibility for her. And one can't rule out a primary challenge to Obama in the next presidential primary.

The lesson Obama should have learned from the Kennedys, is that you need to know how and when to be tough, how to use your power well, Obama came into office with unprecedented power -- he had the Senate, Congress and the entire country behind him. He wasted his first year by sending into the wilderness the constituency who voted for him, and focusing -- indeed, giving the spotlight to the Republicans, whose party was in disarray -- pleading for a lone vote or two from the no-saying Republicans, whose mantra anyway was to get rid of Obama and the Democrats. Now, let's look at Massachusetts.

Obama and his team made the fatal miscalculation of assuming that a sentimental attachment to the Kennedy name would be sufficient to give them the crucial senatorial vote needed to pass health care reform. When I covered a bit of the 1990 gubernatorial Massachusetts race (William Weld, a liberal Republican, won), I was stunned by the palpable presence in Boston of old time machine democrats -- the back room "pols". There I was with my little pad and pencil, there they were waving their cigars in smoke-filled rooms. It was as if time had stood still, and we were in the era of Tammany Hall crooked politics. (New York City had rid itself of Tammany years before.)

No politician today can inherit the power of Jack, Bobby and Ted, because the Kennedys benefited from a lopsided dual inheritance: on their mother's side they were the grandsons of "Honey Fitz", the Irish machine-driven mayor of Boston, and they were also part of the liberal Harvard elite. The loyalty of Boston's Irish pols had nothing to do with issues, their fealty was to the "blood," to the memory of Honey Fitz. These guys owned a big hunk of Massachusetts votes, crooked and non-crooked; their political power was the glue that made the Harvard style of the Kennedy "boys" acceptable. Also, the Kennedys had big money in a time when most politicians didn't have such a heavy chest.

Now, about Harvard. It's a great university, but the super elite Harvard style is politically lethal -- it was the undoing of the presidential campaigns of Michael Dukakis and John Kerry. The tension between Harvard/Cambridge and the regular population of Boston is huge (I myself was bewildered when, as a widow of a Harvard alumni, I would receive letters addressed to "Dear Jane Harvard"), and it wasn't helped this past year by Obama saying a local policeman "acted
stupidly" for mistakenly arresting the Harvard professor H.L.Gates in his own home. Attorney General Martha Coakley lost because she cloaked herself in the droit de seigneur Cambridge style: she didn't bother to campaign, nor did the Obama team help her.

Had Obama appointed Howard Dean, the logical candidate, as Secretary of Health and Human Resources, not merely out of loyalty (though Dean, who invented the campaign by internet and, as Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, used the unconventional tactic of funding campaigns to the small caucus states, thus making it possible for Obama to win) but because Dean, the doctor, understands health reform. This banker's son is so smart, so lucid, that the public listens when he explains health care. He and his brother Jim Dean understand the northeast and liberal energy. Had Dean been in his rightful place, Massachusetts would have won, the country now would have had health care, the Republicans would look like the weak losers that they are, and we would be on to economic reform. Again, about the marvelous Kennedys: they weren't a sentimental bunch.

Originally published in El Pais, February 20, 2010