Hopes for an Enron election fade away

October 24, 2002|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- Every election year, I have the same theological insight: If God had meant for me to watch political ads, He never would have invented the remote control. Click.

Nevertheless, occasionally something penetrates the glaze that comes over my eyes when one candidate is bashing the other.

This year, it's an ad running in the Massachusetts governor's race.

The 30-second cartoon features a watchdog asleep on the job while some very corporate-looking men loot a vault marked "State Treasury." They put the dough in a truck marked "Enron."

Bye-bye pension funds.

Now what's funny about this attack ad is that a Republican is tarring a Democrat with the Enron brush.

More to the point, a venture capitalist, Mitt Romney, is smearing the state treasurer, Shannon O'Brien, with corporate greed and fraud.

The not-so-subtle implication of the ad is that Ms. O'Brien -- not to mention her husband, a former lobbyist -- is personally responsible for the loss of pension funds in the Incredible Collapsing Market.

The subtext is, of course, that Mr. Romney, the former top dog -- as opposed to sleeping dog -- at Bain Capital, will protect us from the corporate mess.

Have you looked at your 401(k) recently? It arrived just in time for Halloween. The only thing scarier is the way Republicans have either defused the issue of corporate misbehavior or downright stolen it.

Mr. Romney, who once ran for the Senate against Ted Kennedy and is the father of five grown sons, won the swimsuit contest for governor in a nearly "love story" ad that chronicled his marriage. The ad ended with a shirtless shot of him swimming with his sons.

Ms. O'Brien, the mother of a 3-year-old, has no intent of matching that pinup pose ... but she is trying to match his attacks.

Her campaign tags Mr. Romney as a player in the high-profit and downsized economy. Which, for better and for worse, he was.

The end result, or the near-end result, is that this close race comes down to a duel over who is more worthy of economic mistrust.

But it's not just in Massachusetts that Republicans are trying to close the Enron gap.

This is the year CEOs stopped being stars of anything but the evening news. When the folks at WorldCom and Adelphia were taking the perp walk, it looked like a scandal made for midterm elections.

This is the most CEO-filled White House in memory. You want an administration that's friendly to big industry and bigger rich folks, you got it.

After the stock market tanked, the economy slumped, and older Americans postponed their golden years into their 80s, some thought an outraged public would turn the perp walk into a Democratic cakewalk.

It's not happening.

In part, as everyone in Washington will tell you, Iraq "sucked the air" out of the domestic debate. War trumps everything in the hierarchy of anxiety.

At the same time, the Republicans put forward so many itsy-bitsy proposals with labels like "corporate fraud" or "prescription drugs" or "pension reform" that it's harder to pin the tail on the elephant.

While we are at it, the Democrats haven't presented anything close to a strong progressive alternative.

In the drift toward the middle, or the third way, if you prefer, all but a handful of candidates seem afraid of appearing anti-business or of being accused of "class warfare."

In Massachusetts, Ms. O'Brien doesn't make a very convincing robber baron. Mr. Romney's pre-emptive strike may not win him any Olympic medals.

But corporate scandals emptied out a whole lot of pocketbooks and a whole lot of state coffers.

That memory is already fading from politics.

The real dozing watchdog? I think he's named "us."

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. She can be reached via e-mail at ellengoodman@globe.com.

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