Two Guys with Half the Answers

In late summer, as the Senate race seemed to be hopelessly mired in policy sludge, reporters and some of the voting public were showing signs of disappointment. Great things were expected of this battle between Sen. John F. Kerry and Gov. William F. Weld. Yet in campaign appearances the two seasoned politicians showed a disciplined determination to stay “on message.” And in the debates the candidates got tangled up in incomprehensible disputes over Kerry’s votes in Washington and Weld’s vetoes as governor. Both men seemed to have lost their ability to speak in the simplicities and generalities required for good television. “Well, governor, what about phonics?” Kerry demanded in the heat of one exchange. “What about the ability to be able to access phonics?” Jon Keller, the political analyst for WLVI-TV in Boston, gave a one-word summation after the debate in which the candidates were supposed to reveal their personal sides: “Yuck!”

At this point, Christopher Lydon took it upon himself to get Gov. Weld into the studios of WBUR-FM for an hour-long conversation on “The Connection.” The ground rules were to talk about anything other than “welfare, crime, and taxes,” Weld’s steady drumbeat since last November. The Weld campaign had not been generous in granting extended interviews, at one point rejecting even a request from John F. Kennedy Jr. on behalf of George. But Lydon had written a profile of Weld for The New York Times Magazine and Weld confessed he liked it. “You’ve got me nailed,” he told Lydon on the show. One thing he especially liked was Lydon’s insistence that the governor should not be underestimated. “Beware,” Lydon said he often warns Weld’s detractors. “He looks lazy, but he’s sneaking in a lot of library time.”

“Well, I have these ursine eyes, bearlike eyes,” Weld said. “They’re almost shut, so it’s O.K. You can let your guard down.”

It must be said that Lydon succeeded in bringing out a more colorful Bill Weld than the one viewers were seeing on the televised debates. They discussed literature (Nabokov), rock music (Weld said he had been listening lately to the Violent Femmes), politics of course (the governor spoke of his admiration for Dick Morris, but this was before the toe-sucking scandals), and spirituality. A caller asked Weld about his religious beliefs. Weld told of being raised a Presbyterian and of now attending an Episcopalian church with his wife and family. But the governor couldn’t help injecting a subtle reminder of his tough-on-crime agenda: “I consider myself probably more of an Old Testament man than a New Testament man,” he said. Lydon asked about the distinction. “Well, Old Testament is eye-for-an-eye, it’s more Jonathan Edwards…” Whereupon the governor made a quick transition to his wife’s claim to be related to Edwards, the Puritan divine.

o much for the complaint about boring politicians! Here was Weld in all his quirkiness, giving off unmistakeable signs of intelligent life. A reader of Nabokov. An accomplished chess master. If there is a certain lack of intellectual consistency, at least he keeps things interesting. He is a Republican who invokes Puritan hellfire and yet grooves to the Violent Femmes. A Christian who is willing to admit he doesn’t much care for the New Testament, implying… Implying what? Contrary opinions of Jesus Christ notwithstanding? You begin to see why taking on John Kerry isn’t the slightest bit daunting to a man of such serene confidence.

“I do consider myself Whitmanesque, Walt Whitmanesque, in the sense of embracing multitudes,” he said. “There’s more than one man there.”

Win or lose, the very fact that Weld could make this a close race, in a state where only 14 percent of the voters are registered Republicans, is a triumph of personality. It is a credit to Weld’s creativity as a politician, his unceasing attempts to do what politicians used to be able to do a lot more easily before television put them before a mass audience: to be different things to different people. While he has attempted relentlessly to define Kerry by his votes on a selected few issues, Weld has been able to transcend his own stands–they are almost too varied to categorize. What comes across finally is exactly what he wants to project: a picture of a well-bred, unusually intelligent man who is willing to have fun in politics. When he dove fully clothed into the Charles River after signing the rivers protection bill, he created an image that goes a long way with the voters. We like to see a wealthy gentleman take a plunge into a polluted river, just as we like to see that someone like Weld, our social better, is willing to jump into our polluted political system instead of leaving it to money-grubbing mediocrities. It’s reassuringly democratic.

In the debates, both candidates dodged the hard questions about where government should cut.

Kerry and Labor

From the start, there has been a clash of ideas going on between Weld and Kerry, though the surprise in the early going was to see it get lost in the heavy smoke of the debates, which turned out not to show the candidates at their statesmanlike best but rather to exhibit their skills as artful dodgers. Vexing questions about where government should cut back and where it should expand were to be avoided in favor of appeals to self-interest and prejudice, as is always the case when politics and television mix. By Labor Day, Weld’s natural advantage in the personality contest was complemented by his success in making his themes seem simple and clear and Kerry’s fuzzy and muddled. Weld was the tax-cutter and, in his view, Kerry was the tax-raiser, who tended also to be soft on welfare clients, drug addicts, and criminals. But what was at the heart of Kerry’s campaign? How did he want to define himself?

Appearing before a crowd of union leaders at a Labor Day breakfast at the Park Plaza in Boston, Kerry seemed to admit he was only beginning to reconnect with Massachusetts voters after a long stint in Washington. “I think I have a sense today, almost better than it has been in recent years, of what this battle is really about, and why this is worth fighting for,” Kerry said. “The problems of working people are more clear and more defined than they’ve been in a long time,” he said.

Kerry called attention to his support for an increase in the minimum wage, and Weld’s opposition. “After 13 years of watching people with money get more money; after 13 years of watching this country take from the working people and give to the corporate executives; after 13 years of watching the stock market go up and up and up and more and more people losing jobs, we’ve got people in this country still unwilling to raise people at the bottom end of the income scale,” he declared.

He seized upon a labor dispute at Commonwealth Gas Co. “That’s an example of the corporate unfairness that I’m talking about,” Kerry said. “That company made $54 million in profits, record profits. Enough money to turn around and give their management people three million dollars in bonuses at the same time they handed 50 concessions to the workers and told them to go out and take a walk.”

The issue of “corporate responsibility” and fairness to “working people” is one in which Kerry and Weld have obvious differences. Yet Kerry seemed not quite willing to make it the centerpiece of his campaign, as Weld did with taxes. It is, for one thing, a more complicated issue. But also, Kerry has at times tried to position himself as a reasonably “pro-business” Democrat, which means generally reserving the tough talk about “corporate unfairness” to union crowds.

The subject came up in the third debate when Boston Herald reporter Connie Paige asked, “What should Congress do to ensure corporate responsibility and what should corporations do on their own for their workers?”

Kerry mentioned tax credits for job training, and stock options for employees laid off by large companies. “We need to help people to have portable pensions and guaranteed pensions,” he continued. “I met with workers a couple of weeks ago from Lynn, from AT&T. These are people who worked 18 years, 20 years, and they are about to be let off days shy of their pension vesting. They can’t do anything about it. We can.”

t that point, it was hard not to think that that sort of language could win Kerry the election–if only he were able to back it up with years of making those connections, with years of work on behalf of such constituents. That would give him the sort of credibility Sen. Kennedy drew on in his 1992 campaign against Mitt Romney.

But as it happens, those workers Kerry remembered meeting in Lynn were actually in Peabody, where AT&T closed its last New England operator service facility in mid-September, ending the jobs of about 140 employees. Kerry met with several employees and representatives of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in May and wrote a letter to AT&T executives on their behalf. But the pension difficulties remained. Some employees who were just short of the required 30 years of service would have to wait until they are 65 to collect. Others who were under 55 would lose as much as 30 per cent of the value of their pensions.

Weld’s one note

Weld almost never talks about employees affected by the changing economy, unless he is asked about the issue. Though he didn’t meet with the AT&T workers in Peabody, his Secretary of Economic Affairs, David Tibbetts, addressed the union’s concerns in a letter in June. “I believe that we can and should look to corporate leaders to better understand the human impact of their decisions as they seek to make their companies more efficient,” Tibbetts wrote. “The Governor has spoken out on this issue publicly and will continue to do so. We do not believe, however, that government should attempt to dictate to companies their hiring and firing policies or to act as a roadblock to firms’ efforts to become more competitive.”

When we caught up with Gov. Weld at a Labor Day parade in Marlborough, we asked him about his program to address downsizing and falling wages.

“You hold down the burden of taxes and you create jobs,” he said. “We’ve had 15 tax cuts here, putting a billion dollars a year into the pockets of working people, and we’ve created a quarter of a million jobs in the last six years.”

But what about the “corporate responsibility” issue?

“I think we should focus on the displaced worker rather than on the corporation,” Weld said, listing such measures as free tuition at community colleges, letting displaced workers tap into IRA accounts in emergencies, and a privatized job-training system.

Weld’s minimalist approach to economics has been apparent, though not emphasized, throughout the campaign. As declining wages and economic insecurity occasionally pop up as issues of real concern, Kerry has taken the traditional Democratic approach of suggesting government is there to help, while Weld has adopted the market-oriented, supply-side answer: it’s all about taxes. If government weren’t taking such a large chunk of workers’ paychecks, they wouldn’t be feeling so pinched.

By turning the discussion of falling wages into a question of rising taxes, Weld generally succeeds in deflecting the issue. But it should be noted that there are two distinct factors at work. Families do indeed pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes than they did in the 1950s. At the same time, the decline in real (inflation-adjusted) family income is a separate phenomenon. As was documented by a MassINC research report earlier this year, the median family income in New England during the 1950s rose about 55 percent, while the median family income in the region fell about 9 percent from 1989 through 1994, and these income figures are based on salaries before federal, state and local taxes are deducted. Obviously, falling incomes tend to make people more reluctant to accept tax increases. And therein you have a clue about why Weld sometimes seems to be the candidate-on-the-move, and Kerry the old-line liberal. It’s easier to sell tax cuts than an expanded role of government in the economy.

The Washington game

Of course, as the events since the Republican insurgency in 1994 have shown, it is not so easy to sell the drastic shrinkage of government, either. This presents fundamental problems for both Weld and Kerry, just as it does nationally for the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. The problem can be expressed simply: Neither candidate, neither party, can speak honestly to the voters about some of the most important problems facing this nation.

Kerry’s strategy is to stand up for “working people.” Weld’s is to stand up for the overburdened taxpayer. The Republicans campaign on tax cuts and deny thay want major cuts in Social Security and Medicare. The Democrats campaign on protecting entitlements and assert that they want to cut taxes, too, though not by an irresponsible amount. It is the usual Washington charade: Each party wants to have it both ways when it comes to taxes and entitlements. It’s as if working people and taxpayers are, somehow, not understood to be the same people.

This is the true value of the much-maligned Weld-Kerry debates. Here for all to see is the spectacle of two parties putting up their most intelligent and accomplished leaders, both of them refusing to level with us, refusing to speak plainly about how government or the citizens are going to pay for the exploding costs of health care, Social Security, education, crime control… It is not that Weld and Kerry couldn’t help themselves from discussing the arcane policy details. They did it to obscure the issues. They have both dodged the difficult questions that true leaders have an obligation to address.

Weld has hammered away at Kerry for a vote in 1993 to increase the percent of Social Security income that is taxable and for a vote in 1987 to raise Medicare premiums to pay for “catastrophic” health insurance. Kerry indeed took those stands, though he later reversed himself on the Medicare premium.

In the debates, Kerry could not quite own up to the votes. “The issue, governor, is how are we going to deal with Social Security for the future,” he said in the July 17 debate. “Let’s talk about it in an honest way to the citizens without trying to scare seniors.”

“Let’s talk about it in an honest way without trying to scare seniors,” Kerry said.

But moments later, Kerry was attacking Weld for “cheerleading with other Republicans” for a $270 billion cut in Medicare during the Gingrich “revolution.” Scaring seniors about Medicare cuts is, in fact, too useful a device for Kerry and his party to forsake.

Who’s going to fault Weld for playing the Washington game in order to get to Washington? Why should he step up as a fiscal truth-teller and get smashed on the head by Kerry as a threat to the AARP? And yet it is astounding, when you think about it, that Weld has been able to run a campaign for lower taxes and not face up to the obvious follow-up question: In your drastically downsized federal government, how will you deal with the coming explosion in the only “entitlements” that, for budget purposes, really matter–Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid? He sometimes takes haven in the supply-side nostrum that lower taxes will lead to higher revenues. But he told the Pioneer Institute in Boston last summer that Milton Friedman advises him “if tax receipts keep going up, it means the rates are too high.”

nother tack is to deny the problem. “To say that we should turn upside down, inside out, the Social Security system now because something might happen in 2029, to me is crazy” Weld said in the July debate. “I wouldn’t go near Social Security,” he told The Boston Globe, “We don’t need to mess with that.”

“I wouldn’t go near Social Security,” Weld said, “We don’t need to mess with that.”

For his part, Kerry had merely made the timid suggestion that (still another) commission look at the Social Security system and suggest possible reforms, such as an increase in the retirement age and the scaling back of benefits for upper-income seniors. For his acknowledgment that the system will face meltdown when the huge baby-boom generation begins to retire, which is almost beyond debate, Kerry was later whacked by Weld as an enemy of senior citizens.

Checks and balances

All of which is to say that something as important as Social Security cannot be dealt with in the heat of an election campaign. Though it may be the single most important middle-class issue in coming decades (and it is inextricably tied up with the falling wages phenomenon, because slower wage growth means a diminished ability to save for retirement), the changes to come will be hammered out, if at all, in the kind of teeth-grinding process Washington saw last year in the balanced budget fight.

As voters watch the two major parties come to grips with the nation’s fiscal dilemmas, they know that neither party has solutions, or even principles, they can trust. Republicans are more likely to hold taxes down. But will they harm the government benefits your family relies on? Democrats are more likely to keep programs in place. But will they cut deeper into your paycheck?

Meet the Author

Dave Denison

Founding Editor, CommonWealth magazine
So it’s no wonder America tends to choose divided government. We vote to keep a Democratic president in place to watch over the Republican Congress, or vice versa. Massachusetts voters are longtime experts in divided government. The legislature is solidly Democratic, but it seems to have helped matters to have Gov. Weld acting as a check on that body’s excesses. A balance of power keeps the pace of change slow.

Some voters undoubtedly will cast their vote in the Senate race based on the personality of the candidates. Some will stick with old-fashioned party loyalty. For a number of strategic voters in the middle, it will be a time to act with caution. For them, and perhaps for the nation as a whole, the watchwords may be: Two cheers for divided government!