If Birmingham Had Won 2002 Nomination, Romney's Life Might Have Changed Big Time

Friday, February 27, 2015

Tom Birmingham made the news this week when the word got around that he’s joining the Pioneer Institute as a senior fellow in education.

Birmingham, a former president of the Massachusetts Senate, is a lifelong Democrat, and the Pioneer Institute is traditionally a haven for Republicans, so the story was shot through with the cliché of the “strange bedfellows.”
I was not much surprised by the news.  Birmingham’s mind is extraordinarily capacious and subtle.

“It was clear to me that we have a substantial area of common ground on education issues that does not extend to a variety of other issues where we have to agree to disagree,” Birmingham said of his relationship with the institute in an interview with the State House News Service.   
If Birmingham thought he could do something to elevate the quality of public education in Massachusetts even a tiny notch or two by joining the conservative scrum at the Pioneer Institute, he would not have dithered over the offer.

The Pioneer Institute’s newest recruit is a decisive fellow, indeed.  Otherwise, he never would have ended his Senate career at its apogee in 2002 to try to gain the Commonwealth’s highest office. 
It is worth considering that, if Birmingham’s gubernatorial quest had succeeded, Mitt Romney’s two presidential campaigns would not have happened, and the recent history of presidential politics would be quite different from what it is.

Starting in 1990, Birmingham was in the Senate for 12 years.  Kind of remarkably for modern times, he was president of the Senate for half of the time he served there.
No doubt, Birmingham learned a great deal about legislating from his patron and predecessor, Bill Bulger, but he obviously ignored the lesson on longevity.  Bulger’s presidency lasted for 17 years.

For Birmingham in 2002, it was up or out.  This is a philosophy more should adhere to.  The courage of it becomes a man.
In 2002, Birmingham was one of five Democrats who sought the nomination for governor.  The others were State Treasurer Shannon O’Brien; Robert Reich, an academic and former U.S. Labor Secretary; State Senator Warren Tolman; and Steve Grossman, a businessman and a former chair of the national Democratic Party, (and, until early last month, our state treasurer).

Birmingham came in third in the primary, fewer than 6,000 votes behind second-place finisher Reich, and far behind the winner, O’Brien.  If Reich had not been in the race, I believe Birmingham could have taken the nomination from O’Brien. 
Reich was the darling of the liberals that year.  Had he not been in the race, most of Reich’s votes would have gone to the next most liberal person in the race, Birmingham.  Reich’s vote total, 185,315, added to Birmingham’s, 179,703, would have produced 365,018 votes, a number far beyond O’Brien’s, 243,039.

O’Brien was a good candidate but ultimately did not match up well against Romney.  She had a big early lead in the polls and faded at the end, losing by nearly five percentage points.
Birmingham certainly would have had a tough time with Romney, who looked on the surface more like a governor than he.  And Romney would have bloodied Birmingham on account of his status as a protégé of Bulger and a State House insider.

Yet Birmingham would have prevailed, in my opinion, because (a) he’s Chelsea tough and can take a punch, (b)  he is every bit as smart as Romney, if not smarter, (c) he is much more knowledgeable about politicking and governing than Romney, (d) he has the gift of being able to explain on the stump why a principles-driven, activist government is better for the average person  -- Birmingham’s scarily articulate when worked up -- and  --most important -- (e) Birmingham’s genuine passion for action and leadership would have formed an appealing contrast to Romney’s cool, superior, master-of-management style.      
Romney wasn’t governor two years when it became obvious he was mainly interested in the job because it could be a stepping stone to the presidency.  There’s nothing terribly wrong or unusual with that.  If wild ambition were a hanging offense, we’d have to install a permanent gallows on the grounds of every state capitol.

This may qualify as a stupendous delusion, but I’ll always believe that the candidacy of Robert Reich, a liberal’s liberal, opened the floodgates for the national ambitions of Mitt Romney, who presented himself expediently as a “severe conservative” when he was actually a severe moderate, an act of contortion that likely spelled the death of his oval office dream.  
The Pioneer Institute describes itself as an “independent, non-partisan, privately funded research organization.”  It says that its mission is “to improve the quality of life in Massachusetts through civic discourse and intellectually rigorous, data-driven public policy solutions based on free market principles, individual liberty and responsibility, and the ideal of effective, limited and accountable government.”

Birmingham will be good for the Pioneer Institute, and vice versa. 





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