Liberals aren't laughing


BOSTON -- There is a fundamental irony in the tumultuous campaign for governor of Massachusetts.

The central dynamic of the campaign has been a revolution against liberalism. It has produced two candidates who seem equally acceptable to the vast majority of the voters who most wanted to react against Gov. Michael Dukakis and the liberal establishment that has dominated the state's politics. But the balance of power is held by those for whom neither Republican William Weld nor Democrat John Silber would have been the right choice.

As a result, it will be these liberals whose values are being rejected who will decide on the new course the state will take. They are not finding the decision an easy one.

On the one hand, Weld is the kind of patrician Republican voters here have tolerated occasionally in the past. He is intelligent, articulate and non-threatening. He supports abortion rights. He was a political hero of sorts when he quit the Reagan Justice Department in protest of Edwin Meese's remaining in office while under investigation.

Weld is, nonetheless, a former federal prosecutor who takes a very tough line on crime questions, likes to talk about "down-sizing" the government and, most importantly, supports the initiative of Citizens for Limited Taxation to roll state revenues back to the level of 1988.

The alternative, Boston University President Silber, doesn't make himself easy to love. He is, by the standards of the liberals, on the "right" side of the tax-rollback issue and he is, after all, a Democrat. But his candidacy is still clouded by the infamous "Silber shockers" -- the series of harsh judgments on traditional Democratic constituency groups that reflected both abrasive insensitivity and intellectual arrogance.

The abortion rights issue is especially difficult. Although Silber insists he is pro-choice, he has called abortion "indistinguishable from first-degree murder of a particularly callous sort" and argued that a constitutional amendment to codify abortion rights "means a woman could go off in private and have her baby in the ninth month and kill that baby."

Silber also has made himself vulnerable by refusing to file a federal income tax return for 1989, even passing the Oct. 15 deadline for late filing. Silber insists he already has paid more taxes than will be due and that his problem is technical. But Weld says Silber has simply made a "political calculation" that the return is potentially damaging enough he must delay it past Nov. 6.

So the question becomes whether these undecided voters will prefer a Republican who may be more Republican than they wish or a Democrat whose base is made up of conservatives with whom those liberals have almost no common ground.

Going into the final two weeks, the polling data are conspicuously inconclusive, particularly in a state in which the pre-primary surveys so clearly understated Silber's strength there is widespread suspicion that many poll participants may be lying.

Silber's managers are convinced that the overwhelming Democratic registration advantage is beginning to assert itself -- that, as Democrats always say in such situations, their voters are "coming home." But there have been enough public Democratic defections to Weld to suggest that some of the chickens Silber is counting may not be there.

The picture is clouded, moreover, by an issue that does not evolve directly from whatever liberal excesses made the voters here so angry: the depressed state of the economy. "Bad economic times exacerbate everything," says Weld. "The emotion out there now is not just anger, it's fear."

Weld also is persuaded that the economic concern may make it easier for voters to embrace his "down-sizing" proposals. "There's an undertone of the economic issue assuming the contours of a corruption issue almost," he says, meaning that it has made voters even less tolerant of such things as no-show public jobs.

As their first televised debate demonstrated the other night, the campaign dialogue is not likely to give undecided voters much help. Silber, whom the Weld campaign likes to call "Dr. Know-it-all," was predictably acerbic and self-assured. Weld, always called "Lawyer Weld" by the Silber camp, was equally the model of patrician Republicanism.

In the end, the decision will come down to which of these agents of radical change the liberal survivors will be able to swallow.

Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of The Evening Sun's staff, also appear in the Perspective section of The Sunday Sun.

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