Thursday, March 21, 2002

The Stature Gap

Massachusetts Governor Jane Swift was an accidental chief executive. She was chosen because, at the time in 1998, then-acting Governor Paul Cellucci needed a running mate who was female and did not drool. When Cellucci fled the state in 2001 to become the US Ambassador to Canada, Swift ascended to what locals call the “corner office.” By any measure, she lacked both the managerial and political skills required. The result was disaster, as predictable as rain.

Once it became clear that Romney would get in Massachusetts, rather than wait in Utah, it became clear that Swift would have to get out. The stature gap between Romney and Swift is the difference between the Empire State Building and my car. Romney may well be the most impressive person to seek statewide public office in Massachusetts since Jack Kennedy and Henry Cabot Lodge ran against one another in 1952. Whether that will do him any good in modern-day Massachusetts is an open question. But the fact is that if you had a large enterprise that needed fixing (and Massachusetts state government certainly fits that description), Romney would be on the very short list of people you would call to come in and do the job.

Massachusetts is lucky to have as one of its two choices (come November) one of the country’s most capable and able men. The rest of the states are not nearly so lucky. The other day I was riding the rails back from Washington with a veteran Republican political operative. We were talking about the Republican Party after George W. Bush (which is to say: 2008) and speculating as to who would run and who would not. The conversation shifted a bit to the question of who could run; who had the stature and ability to mount a credible national campaign that would stitch together the various constituencies necessary to mount a credible general election campaign.

We took out a book of all the Governors and Senators and Congressmen and Congresswomen and went through the names, state-by-state. And when we were done, we had a list of about 10 names, of whom I would say six were serious players: Jeb Bush, Bill Frist, Bill Simon (assuming victory in California), Mitt Romney (assuming victory in Massachusetts), Chuck Hagel and George Voinovich. Romney’s various stances on abortion probably disqualify him from consideration. Voinovich’s attachment to tax increases certainly disqualifies him. So you’re left with four guys -- and when you think about it, it really boils down to one guy, whose name is Bush.

There was a time in American political life when virtually every state had at least one serious political player and often three or four. Minnesota had Humphrey and McCarthy and Freeman and Mondale. Michigan had Bob Griffin and Phil Hart and Bill Milliken and George Romney. Illinois had Ev Dirksen and Jim Thompson and Richard Daley. Ohio had Robert Taft and John Glenn. New York had Bobby Kennedy and Jack Javits and Nelson Rockefeller. California had Pat Brown and Ronald Reagan. Massachusetts had Jack Kennedy, Elliot Richardson and Tip O’Neill. Connecticut had Abe Ribicoff, Washington had Scoop Jackson, Texas had Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson and John Connally and George Herbert Walker Bush and Lloyd Bensten. Arkansas had William Fulbright, Arizona had Carl Hayden and Barry Goldwater. And the list went on.

Whatever their collective faults, these were not small people. I think it’s fair to say that all of them would have been amazed that Jane Swift was the governor of any state, much less one that plays a leading national role in higher education, medicine, technology, financial services and biotechnology. But perhaps what would have been more amazing to them is the fact that Jane Swift is not exceptional. The political landscape is heavily populated with (mostly) men and women like her, in Congress and in statehouses across the country.

This is not a good thing, for the political system or the country. And this “stature gap,” as a friend of mine calls it, feeds on itself. The view of many of Mitt Romney’s friends is that he must be crazy to run for elective office. Forty years ago, someone like Romney would have been expected by his friends to run for elective office. Running for public office is now widely considered to be evidence of a character defect.

The fact that Romney is running is manifestly good news, for Republicans in particular but for the political culture in general. One hopes it’s the beginning of a trend.