Commentary: A Two Party System In Name Only

The mere mention of Ted Kennedy's name gets conservative Republican blood boiling and eyes blazing. So you might think the GOP would be eager to take on the liberal patriarch as he runs for reelection this November. But not in Massachusetts, where Republican leaders have adopted the astonishing position of implying that Kennedy is the best man for the job he has held since 1962.

True, there will be a Republican on the ballot for Kennedy's seat: Jack E. Robinson III, a Harvard University-educated lawyer and entrepreneur. But Robinson has become such an embarrassment that state party officials have refused to endorse him. Robinson's campaign nearly aborted on take-off last March when the self-styled reformer released a detailed "complete report to the citizens of the Commonwealth" on his checkered past. In it, Robinson discussed a drunken-driving arrest near Fenway Park, why he failed the bar exam three times, and a restraining order that a former girlfriend took out against him in 1998, alleging he had forced her to engage in sexual relations. "I am not a groper," Robinson declared, noting the woman later agreed to drop the charges.

FORFEITED FIGHT. Undaunted, Robinson insists his "grass-roots guerrilla campaign will pull off an upset," just as John F. Kennedy shocked the pros by beating Senator Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. in 1952. But with a campaign war chest of some $25,000--vs. $6 million for Kennedy--"he can't possibly win," says Gerry Chervinsky, president of Massachusetts pollsters KRC Communications Research. In fact, Robinson may end up finishing third behind Libertarian Carla Howell, who advocates abolishing federal income tax and gun laws and full privatization of Social Security.

Robinson is the most obvious--but far from the only--sign of the disturbing descent of Massachusetts into a one-party state. Republicans are not fielding candidates for half the 10 congressional seats on the ballot--all of which are held by Democrats. And the state party has forfeited the battle for control of the legislature: Republicans are contesting just 62 of 160 seats in the Massachusetts House and a mere 14 of 40 seats in the state Senate. With only 13% of voters registered as Republicans--vs. 36% for the Democrats and 51% for independents--it's "our most one-party state," says Michael Franc of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Not everyone, however, agrees that there is a problem. "The system is not broken down," says Marty Linksy, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. He argues that there are not more GOP candidates for the State Legislature because "many [Democratic] state legislators work their tails off" for constituents. "If people really wanted a choice, there would be another candidate," he says.

FREE REIN. But to work well, democracy requires healthy competition among two or more political parties. In the current climate, Kennedy and other Democratic potentates "are free to adopt an uncompromising liberalism," argues William G. Mayer, an associate political science professor at Northeastern University.

Moreover, "the kind of debate over public policy that takes place in virtually every other state capital is largely absent here," complains Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. Take taxes. In 1989, the legislature passed an emergency measure raising income tax rates to 5.95% from 5%. At the time, the Democrats promised that the hike was temporary. In a two-party system, they would have been held to that promise. But 11 years later, the emergency is long over, and the legislature still refuses to consider any cut below 5.75%. Now the issue is being put to the voters: A ballot initiative would roll back rates to 5%

Republicans showed a glimmer of life a decade ago, after then-Governor Michael S. Dukakis lost his 1988 bid for the White House and his "Massachusetts miracle" collapsed into the "Massachusetts mess." With state finances in a shambles, voters elected Republican William F. Weld governor in 1990, and the GOP picked up enough seats in the state Senate to sustain his veto. In 1994, venture capitalist Mitt Romney mounted a credible challenge to Kennedy.

UP FOR GRABS. It has been straight downhill for the GOP since then. Although Republicans hold just 7 of 40 seats in the state Senate and 27 of 160 in the House, the GOP is so demoralized that John Brockelman, executive director of the Massachusetts Republican Party, says somewhat pathetically: "If we could pick up [just] one seat in both chambers, that would be a dramatic change." Weld, now chairman of the advisory board of Leeds Equity Partners, has moved to New York and is contemplating running for governor there. Romney has moved to Utah to clean up the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.

Worst of all, the one remaining bastion of Republican power in Massachusetts--the governor's office--is poised to crumble. "The redoubt has been breached," says Weld. An ethical scandal involving Lieutenant Governor Jane Swift and huge spending overruns on the "Big Dig," the $12 billion-plus highway project that runs through the center of Boston, has sent Cellucci's popularity rating to an all-time low. "He is lucky he is not up for reelection until 2002," says Chervinsky. But with prominent Democrats already preparing to run in that race, most observers believe it is now only a question of which one will prevail.

The American Revolution began here, and Massachusetts is littered with the symbols of democracy. But the free and vigorous exchanges that characterize democratic political institutions are fast disappearing, and increasingly, the people of Massachusetts hear but a single voice. If they listen closely, though, they can probably make out another one--Paul Revere howling in his grave.

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