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April 18, 2016

Democratic activists want party leaders to oppose Governor Baker, loudly and consistently. They’re not likely to get what they want.

In his piece that explored the frustration of some grass roots Democrats, Boston Globe reporter David Scharfenberg wrote:

"there is deep frustration, some Democrats say privately, that party leaders like Attorney General Maura Healey, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, and Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg have taken a relatively soft line with the governor."

The issue du jour is the Governor’s lack of leadership on the LGBT rights bill that is not advancing very far in the Legislature.

To be sure, those same Democratic activists who are frustrated by the “soft line” senior Democrats have taken with the Republican Governor are very likely outraged by the hard line congressional Republicans have taken with the Democratic President.

The soft line that angers them is what we also call governance.

Their frustration is with their senior Democrats but also with a constitutional system. Maura Healey, Robert DeLeo, and Stan Rosenberg were not elected to be opposition leaders. They’ve got day jobs in their constitutional offices.

DeLeo and Rosenberg have their own constituencies and were chosen by their respective caucuses to lead governing institutions. They are not the head of opposition parties in a parliamentary structure. A system of separation of powers makes true opposition difficult, at least if governing is your goal.

Healey is part of our mixed executive branch. Other constitutions (the federal Constitutions and those of states such as NJ and NH) have a more unified executive with the Attorney General appointed by the Governor. Certainly Massachusetts Attorneys General are often viewed as opposition figures, though none have been elected from the AG’s office to a higher office since 1966.

Mayors of Boston? They’ve got a city to run and need a Governor to do it.

It’s also worth noting that Governor Baker appears to be well liked among his senior Democratic colleagues. The kind of opposition that activists pine for is thus made more difficult.

Political parties are far more complex organizations than we typically admit. The political scientists V.O. Key described the three somewhat distinct, somewhat overlapping elements of a political party:

Parties in the Electorate: activists and voters who identify with the party
Party Organizations: the various committees that organize parties at the local, regional, state and national levels
Party in Government: local, regional, state, and national officeholders

This tripod is often unbalanced. Each part (and the many subparts within) has a different vision of its role.  They can also differ on tactics and ideology.  Vocal anger from Democratic activists is a sign of both a healthy party in the electorate as well as a sign of consternation with the party in government.  

The frustration will also get worse. The next gubernatorial election could be a reprise of 1994, not 1974 as some activists fervently hope. And few senior Democratic colleagues seem to desire the type of institutional combat that dominates life in DC.

The soft line is likely to be around for a while.

Stan Rosenberg, party leadership, Robert DeLeo, Charlie Baker, Maura Healey

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