Opinion

Scot Lehigh

Democrats’ desires aren’t general election winners

Here’s the dilemma for Massachusetts Democrats this weekend: What party insiders want and what general election voters value are two different things.

The party’s dedicated core favors expanded government services and more spending on progressive priorities — and the leading candidates are responding to those desires.

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Don Berwick promises single-payer health care and talks of ending poverty. Steve Grossman wants universal pre-K. Martha Coakley calls for broad access to early ed, plus spending for a longer school day. (Joe Avellone has staked out more moderate positions; Juliette Kayyem falls somewhere in between.)

Even the Democrats’ economic prescriptions lean heavily toward spending on infrastructure, broadband, and so on. Listen at Democratic forums, and you’d think the state has a big surplus to spend. It doesn’t. Next year’s budget will still tap at the rainy-day fund. That’s one reason why, when pressed, Berwick and Grossman hint that they’ll seek more revenue, while Coakley hides in the fiscal fog, saying she’ll root out waste, fraud, and abuse.

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Now consider what likely general election voters put a premium on. According to last week’s Globe poll, they’re looking for someone fiscally responsible, who can create jobs and improve the economy. Forty-two percent said having a candidate who wouldn’t raise taxes was very important to them; another 30 percent said that was somewhat important.

What accounts for the disconnect? Some of it is conviction. Some is political heliotropism: Plants grow toward sunlight, and candidates gravitate toward opportunity. At a convention full of left-leaners, a liberal path promises the best chance of short-term success. Or even survival.

That’s all the more true because Deval Patrick has energized an activist core committed to his politics. But general election voters often look for qualities in their next executive that were lacking in their current one.

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That would mean a better, more attentive public manager, who talks less about building castles in the air than fixing what’s broken.

And right now, that sounds more like Republican Charlie Baker.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com
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