“The short memories of the American voters is what keeps our politicians in office,” Will Rogers said.
Last week showed just how completely those politicians, who ought to feel insulted by Rogers’s assessment, have adopted it instead as an electoral strategy. Two of our own — House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and serial (now former) presidential aspirant Mitt Romney — attempted spectacular reversals, daring gymnastic feats dependent on the certainty that we voters are dim amnesiacs.
First, Romney. Before he pulled the plug Friday morning, we were experiencing a candidate we had not seen before. Again. Gearing up for a third presidential run, this year’s model was concerned about income inequality — the kind of issue he and his fellow travelers were dismissing as class warfare not too long ago. The man who wrote off almost half the population as moochers in that infamous 47 percent speech was suddenly eager to lift up the poor. The candidate whose 2012 tax proposals would have further enriched super-high earners was now saying the rich have done quite well enough. There was even speculation that Romney would jettison that 11,000-square-foot beachfront home in La Jolla from his roster of cribs.
Mitt the Third might have been learning from the example of Charlie the Second here. Four years before our new governor was Compassionate Charlie, talking about poverty in black neighborhoods, he was Cranky Charlie, throwing welfare recipients under buses.
The makeover worked for Baker. Would voters have noticed Romney’s contradictions? We’ll never know. Romney’s exit, as his run seemed to be gaining a dram of momentum, appears to have come after party bigs were less than enthusiastic about his candidacy.
If only somebody had put the brakes on DeLeo. Last week, he and his faithful followers repealed the term limit for the speaker they themselves had enacted only six years ago, when the Legislature was under an ethical cloud after the resignation of Sal DiMasi, later convicted on corruption charges. Way back in 2009, DeLeo seemed pretty proud of the rule that would limit his term to eight years, calling it a way to restore public trust.
Never mind about all of that, DeLeo was saying Thursday. Asked to explain his reasoning, DeLeo was a master of evasion.
“I wouldn’t say I was going back on my word,” he said.
And: “over six years, rightly or wrongly . . .”
Wrongly, Mr. Speaker, but do go on.
“ . . . I have learned and feel I have learned in terms of what the importance is of doing away with the term limits.” The upshot of his fog-bound verbiage: Yes, he pushed for term limits, but that was before everybody realized what a great speaker he is. He said this with a straight face, just months after the probation trial exposed a Legislature — including DeLeo — up to their necks in naked patronage.
It’s a bold move by a speaker who was deathly afraid of the bottle bill, worried voters would turn legislators out because 5-cent deposits on plastic water bottles looked like a tax hike. He doesn’t seem bothered by the prospect of voter backlash on a matter of integrity, though. Clearly, he’s decided voters won’t make him pay for it.
Are we really that pathetic? You bet we are! Just ask Vincent Moscardelli. The University of Connecticut political scientist studied a bunch of US congressional elections where incumbents had faced ethics scandals. Immediately afterward, some citizens turned out to vote against the incumbent, but most were unmoved. And after a little while — four years, max — nobody seemed angry any more.
“Voters move on quickly,” he said.
So that’s why DeLeo is willing to look truly awful now, to hold onto power. Ditto all of the legislators who did 180s to vote in his favor.
They’re betting our short memories will protect them. If they’re right, we deserve every one of them.Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.