On the gubernatorial campaign trail in Maryland the other day, Democratic candidate Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was asked for a two-word description of her opponent, US Representative Bob Ehrlich. "Frat boy," she replied.
When Ehrlich heard about that, he was outraged -- or said he was. "She wouldn't use the term 'frat boy' if she were talking about a female opponent," he fumed. Supporters and surrogates amplified the grievance, accusing Townsend of using a gender stereotype to belittle her opponent. The spat quickly drew the attention of the press. "Camps spar over Townsend word choice," one newspaper headline proclaimed the next day. "Word choice miffs men," declared another.
It didn't really happen, of course. Townsend did describe Ehrlich as a "frat boy" -- that much is true -- but Ehrlich didn't complain about it. No male candidate would react to a lighthearted jibe by whining about stereotypes and sexism. And outside of Massachusetts, I'm not sure any female candidate would, either.
But here in the Bay State, a place famous for its sophistication and intellectual heft, ridiculousness is no barrier to political posturing. And so we had the spectacle last week of a Democratic candidate for governor, a graduate of Yale and Boston University, pretending to be offended because her GOP opponent had used the word "unbecoming" to characterize something she said during a debate.
Mitt Romney uttered the U-word after listening to Shannon O'Brien insinuate that his pro-choice stance on abortion masks a secret pro-life agenda. It is a suggestion she has repeatedly made, and Romney had finally heard enough. "Your effort to continue to try and create fear and deception here," he said with some asperity, "is unbecoming."
And that, O'Brien decided to claim the next day, was a sexist insult.
"I certainly think he wouldn't use the word 'unbecoming' if he were speaking about a male opponent," she sniffed. Well, he might have. Or he might have used a more accurate term, like "sleazy" or "dishonest" or "unscrupulous." All of which are a reasonable description of O'Brien's phony umbrage -- and perhaps a hint of things to come in an O'Brien administration.
She isn't the first Massachusetts Democrat to pull this stunt. In 1986, Joseph Kennedy and former state Senator George Bachrach were running to succeed Tip O'Neill in the US House. During a debate late in the campaign, Bachrach noted that Kennedy's company had borrowed from a consortium that included three Libyan banks. "Are you in hock to Mr. Gadhafi?" he demanded. Whereupon Kennedy, affecting high dudgeon, dressed down Bachrach for implying that he would have anything to do with Libya, which had "offered asylum to Sirhan Sirhan after he killed my father."
In the Boston mayoral race three years earlier, Ray Flynn had put on a great show of being wounded when opponent David Finnegan labeled him a political chameleon. "You called me a lizard!" Flynn cried during a debate at City Hall.
Both Kennedy and Flynn went on to win their respective elections and perhaps O'Brien will too. Political stunts often work; that's why candidates resort to them. But let's at least be clear about what it will mean if she does.
It will mean a Massachusetts government entirely controlled by a single party -- a Democratic governor and lieutenant governor, an overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature, an all-Democratic congressional delegation, a Democratic attorney general, secretary of state, and auditor. It will mean Democrats holding nearly every sheriff's, court clerk's, and district attorney's office. It will mean Democrats appointed to fill every vacancy, Democrats running every state agency, Democrats named to most boards and commissions, and more Democratic judges on the Massachusetts bench.
For the state's Democratic Party, it will be a dream come true. In fact, it's a dream that has come true before: In 1986 Michael Dukakis told a group of union supporters, "I'm very proud of the Democrats. . . We don't need any Republicans in office statewide in this state." He got his wish, and Massachusetts went on to pay a heavy price.
Neither O'Brien nor Romney is perfect, and neither has run an edifying and uplifting campaign. But one stark difference separates them. O'Brien is a creature of the Beacon Hill system, an insider's insider who has always found the appetites of the state more pressing than the needs and concerns of taxpayers. Romney, by contrast, comes from the outside -- outside state government, outside the bureaucracy, outside the Democratic Party. He has been shaped by a world that encourages innovation and rewards achievement, and that knows only too well how frustrating government can be.
A lot is riding on Tuesday's vote. It would be unbecoming to make the wrong choice.