Who’s to Blame for a Candidate Like Martha Coakley?

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Photo: Courtesy of Martha Coakley

Even if Martha Coakley manages to win Tuesday’s Massachusetts special election, she’ll come out of the race a loser. Not since Grady Little gave away the American League pennant to the Yankees in 2003 has New England witnessed this level of ineptitude. Actually, that Red Sox reference would probably sail right over Coakley’s head, when you consider that just the other day she told a gobsmacked radio host that Curt Schilling — who’s endorsed her GOP opponent, Scott Brown — was a “Yankee fan.” It was just the latest in a series of blunders that have helped Coakley blow a 30-point lead over Brown and now have her on the verge of losing what Massachusetts Democrats consider their birthright: the U.S. Senate seat Ted Kennedy held for 46 years.

But Coakley’s sorry performance reveals a dirty little secret about Bay State politics: Yes, Massachusetts may be “one of the most enthusiastically Democratic states in the country,” as Adam Nagourney recently described it in the Times, but Massachusetts also boasts one of the most hackish state Democratic parties in America — in other words, just the sort of party that would produce a Martha Coakley. And, in a way, the person to blame for the party’s pathetic condition is Teddy himself.

Granted, it’s not as though Kennedy deliberately tried to sabotage Massachusetts Democrats. In addition to being the Lion of the Senate, he was the Lion of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, serving as a mentor to — plus fund-raiser and campaigner for — countless lower-wattage Democrats back home. But when one guy occupies one of the state’s top three offices for nearly half a century, it’s all but inevitable that political sclerosis will set in. And that’s what happened in Massachusetts, as generations of bright and promising young Democrats there were forced to temper their ambitions and bide their time until Teddy — and later, John Kerry, who’s held the state’s other Senate seat for going on a quarter century now — moved on to something else. Which, of course, they never did. Indeed, while Kennedy and Kerry’s outsize presence on the national political stage probably made people in Utah think of Massachusetts as Gomorrah on the Bay, it’s important to remember that from 1991 until 2007, Massachusetts’s governors were Republicans — despite the fact that Democrats enjoy a three-to-one registration advantage in the state.

There’s no better illustration of the Massachusetts Democratic Party’s decrepitude than its state legislators. For most state parties, the legislature is an incubator for political talent and the place to develop a deep political bench, but for Massachusetts Democrats, it’s been a breeding ground for pathological behavior and corruption. The last three speakers of the Massachusetts House of Representatives — Democrats all in a legislative body their party has now controlled for 55 years — have had to resign because of scandals that resulted in their indictments. Meanwhile, over in the State Senate, in the last two years, one Democrat lost his job after being arrested for sexual assault; another was forced from office after FBI surveillance cameras caught her stuffing a $1,000 bribe into her bra; and a third (and my personal favorite) recently bid the Senate adieu after a three-month stretch during which he was involved in a hit-and-run car crash that injured a 13-year-old boy, failed a breathalyzer test he had to take as part of the house arrest he was under stemming from the hit-and-run, and then tried to blame the failed test on the alcohol in his toothpaste — an explanation the judge rejected in sending him to jail, which finally led to his resignation.

It was from this talent pool that Martha Coakley emerged to become Massachusetts attorney general and now her party’s nominee for the U.S. Senate. So, while the second-guessing has already begun about how Massachusetts Democrats could nominate a candidate as lame as Coakley, it’s worth remembering that she actually bested three challengers in the Democratic primary last December. If those three couldn’t even beat Coakley, why does anyone think they could have beaten Brown? Democrats in Massachusetts are shocked and dismayed that Coakley could lose what many call, in reverential tones, “the Kennedy seat.” But over five decades, Kennedy may have done his work too well.