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Robert Reich’s guerrilla campaign (continued)


MAO, VIETNAMESE GENERAL Vo Nguyen Giap, and Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara all knew that before their insurrections could succeed in Beijing, Saigon, or Havana, they must thrive on the periphery. Revolution must be brought directly to the people. To propel his candidacy, Reich, with the help of his media team — Longabaugh, consultant Michael Goldman, and spokesperson Dorie Clark — has devised a way to do just that: ignore opinion leaders and take the campaign directly to voters. During the last month, Reich has accomplished this by going out on the hokily dubbed "Reich Reform Express." Modeled after McCain’s "Straight-Talk Express," Reich’s van has transported the candidate across the state. Last week, the 1978 Argosy Camper, for example, visited Kelly’s Roast Beef in Revere and Swampscott. (Romney strategist Mike Murphy, who masterminded McCain’s insurgent effort in 2000, blithely dismisses the Reich Reform Express. "This is more like the Elvis impersonator at the hotel lounge," he says. "I know John McCain. He’s no John McCain.")

The Boston dailies have sniped at these efforts. The Boston Herald reported last week that the van's inspection sticker had expired, prompting colorful language from the tabloid. "It’s ... a rolling scofflaw that has not been inspected the two weeks it’s been on the road," the Herald reported. Earlier, the Boston Globe’s Joanna Weiss similarly poked a hole in the campaign-mobile. In a June 24 story headlined REICH STRUGGLES TO CONNECT WITH RANK AND FILE; YOUNG VOLUNTEERS ENERGIZE CAMPAIGN, the Globe reported that most of the attendees at an event on Taunton Green were Reich volunteers and that Reich arrived at an event at Quincy College an hour early. "Most of the time on Tuesday, his caravan passed through without attracting much notice," Weiss wrote.

But the campaign isn’t necessarily aiming for coverage in the big city dailies. It’s talking directly to the numerous local dailies that populate the Massachusetts media landscape. The same event that the Globe belittled won front-page treatment in the Taunton Daily Gazette. The paper quoted Reich saying, "I’m not part of the culture of patronage and nepotism and cronyism." When Reich’s entourage came to Fitchburg, it likewise received positive coverage from the Sentinel and Enterprise, complete with an attractive photo: "Calling himself an outsider in Massachusetts politics, Democratic candidate Robert Reich stopped by the Upper Common ... preaching a message of reform and vowing to do away with patronage in state government." Visits to Fall River, Waltham, Lynn, Haverhill, and Wakefield drew similar coverage.

"Most people in the political punditry are not reading the Wakefield Daily Item," says Longabaugh, crowing about the coverage he ["he" or the Reich campaign?] received in Wakefield’s paper. "We’re on the messages we want to hit. These papers out there were writing about the Reich Reform Express before the Globe or Herald ever wrote about it." Longabaugh adds that even in the Boston dailies' coverage, there is much to be happy about. The same Herald story that mocked Reich for the out-of-date inspection sticker also contained a large photo of the candidate standing in front of his van. This prompted Longabaugh to recall a famous political anecdote from the Reagan era. CBS White House correspondent Lesley Stahl thought she was skewering Reagan in the lead-up to the 1984 election with a piece that juxtaposed his "Morning In America" images with his substance-free speeches. After the piece ran, she braced for angry calls from the White House. They never came. Instead, Reagan aide Mike Deaver thanked her for the great piece. It was the pictures, Deaver said, that mattered. "You have to get down to the fourth paragraph in that story to see that it’s negative," Longabaugh says.

THUS FAR IN THE gubernatorial contest, Reich has been helped by the overall passivity of O’Brien’s campaign (See "The Frontrunner’s Curse," News and Features, May 16) and Birmingham’s overall failure to catch on. In this vacuum, Reich and his enterprising campaign has prospered. Where O’Brien and Birmingham have eschewed risk, Reich has leaped for it. Where his opponents have refused to step — such as into Dorchester on the crime issue — Reich has treaded headfirst.

All this may be about to change, however. O’Brien came out with a strong education speech on Sunday at Faneuil Hall — perhaps somewhat ill timed on a sunny summer-weekend day. She is expected within a couple of weeks to unveil her first paid political advertising in the campaign — something she has been reluctant to do. While the O’Brien campaign is close-mouthed on the ads, the early word on them is that they will depict the treasurer as an active leader and tough fiscal watchdog. Tolman, Meanwhile, with his roughly $3 million, Tolman is preparing to go on television and to compete with Reich’s reformer image. Nobody knows how Reich will weather these new challenges.

For the time being, the Reich campaign wants to goad O’Brien into engaging in one-on-one debates, a challenge that seems as much about generating free media coverage of the challenge as it is about hoping she will eventually participate in them. The Reich campaign clearly hopes to slant O’Brien’s refusal to participate in a one-on-one debate. "Her cautious campaign is a reflection of their implicit admission that they’ve got an Achilles' heel here," says Longabaugh.

Michael Goldman, who works as a consultant to the Reich campaign, says the contrast between Reich’s "authentic" campaign and Romney’s ersatz photo-ops will help his candidate in the long run. "I cannot think of anything more offensive to any citizen who goes to work every day 52 weeks a year [than] to have some erstwhile candidate spend two hours at a photo op pretending that he understands and cares about my day-to-day existence," says Goldman. "Unless he thinks that pretending to work prepares him to be an acting governor."

It defies all conventional wisdom that a candidate whose financial resources are 10 times less those of his most important rivals can compete as the primary approaches. When O’Brien goes to the air war, Reich’s insurgency may have to take a long march back into the hills. Reich himself acknowledges his campaign's great financial need. While moderate amounts of money can’t generate a candidacy — Grossman spent more than $1 million on ads, far less than the $50 to $70 million he would have needed to dominate the race — some money is needed to remind voters that a candidate is still alive.

"I would like to have more financing. Obviously, we’re trying to have more money," says Reich. "There’s one advantage to running a campaign on a shoestring. Everybody has to work harder and be hungrier."

The mind-boggling thing about Reich’s campaign is that, so far, at every stage when the candidate was not supposed to advance — prior to the Democratic caucuses, at the Democratic convention, after the convention — Reich has managed to move things forward. Nine months ago it would have been unthinkable that Reich, not the early institutional favorite (Birmingham), would be second to O’Brien in the polls. Reich’s guerilla candidacy has brought his band of followers quite a ways. The question is, how far can he go?

Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]

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Issue Date: July 25 - August 1, 2002
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