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Aboard Reich's Reform Express | The Nation

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Aboard Reich's Reform Express

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John Nichols
John Nichols
John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated...

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The 2012 vice presidential candidate is just trying to rebrand himself for 2016.

Officials have temporarily suspended water shutoffs, and activists are working to create permanent protections for low-income families.

The "Reich Reform Express," mothership of what local observers refer to as Robert Reich's "we try harder" campaign for governor, is on a rocky maiden voyage into the backwaters of Massachusetts. The Argosy motor home looks great with its new blue paint job and "Here Comes Bob" logo. But inside the rolling tin can, all is not well. Halfway to Haverhill on a 96-degree day, the air-conditioning system shorts out. Frantic aides make urgent cell phone calls for technical assistance as pieces of the vehicle itself--removed in vain hopes of finding a fuse box--pile up in the sink. The temperature, and tensions, are rising. Except in the swivel chair where the former US Labor Secretary is seated. The small mobile policy unit of American politics is more interested in repairing civil society than his campaign's aging motor home.

"We have to find a new, positive nationalism, which entails offering citizens a wider circle of opportunity to get involved, strengthening democracy, making a deeper commitment to civil liberties and civil rights," says Reich, as he and an aide scramble to catch a bottle of water that has just slid off a counter. Not missing a beat, the candidate continues, "It's really about a harkening back to a time when progressives said that, Yes, Massachusetts can be a model for America, and America really can be a beacon for the world."

Part "Happy Warrior," part professor on the ultimate sabbatical (after quitting the Clinton Cabinet in 1997 he took up a faculty post at Brandeis University), Reich is absolutely certain that it matters to make this point, even as sweat smoothes away the last creases in a once-crisp Oxford shirt. "I try my best to suppress my policy wonk instincts, but I don't always succeed," he admits, with a knowing laugh at the stereotype he so ably fills. "I used to really worry about it. Then I started to understand that this is why I'm running--to talk about big issues, get a dialogue going, maybe change the world."

On the way to changing the world, nothing has gone quite according to plan. And yet, this unexpectedly focused and charismatic candidate has kept his bus on the road long enough and well enough to raise the prospect that he could get a chance to make Massachusetts the model he imagines--and that many of the state's voters seem to enjoy imagining with him. "Thank God there is someone in the race with something to say," a thirtysomething woman tells Reich as he buttonholes commuters at the Alewife T station outside Boston. "I know you understand labor issues," says another. "Thank you for what you did on gay marriage," says Janet Hanseth, 24, referring to Reich's decision to eschew vague talk of equal rights for a blunt commitment to support gay marriage. As she heads for the turnstiles Hanseth exclaims: "Robert Reich is awesome. He's what the Democrats need to be."

Hanseth will get no argument from Reich on that account. A year after he declared the Democratic Party dead, Reich is personally attempting to animate the corpse with a campaign that is breaking most of the rules of modern politics. While several of the Democrats he faces in the September 17 primary have been campaigning--and raising money--for years, Reich entered the contest in January with almost no bank balance and a pundit prognosis of "no way."

But name recognition from his Clinton years, an outsider appeal that makes him a credible advocate for reform in a year when Massachusetts is ready for change, unapologetic liberalism and volunteer energy that recalls nothing so much as the 1968Gene McCarthy campaign, in which he got his political start as a campus organizer, have combined to help Reich leap hurdles that were supposed to be insurmountable. A month after he entered the race, Reich's political team--many of them veterans of Bill Bradley's 2000 presidential campaign--turned thousands of supportive e-mail messages into a network of political neophytes that flooded Democratic precinct caucuses and stormed the June state party convention, winning their man a place on the September 17 ballot.

Since the convention, Reich has emerged as a serious contender--tying in polls for first place with the party's endorsed candidate, State Treasurer Shannon O' Brien, and leading State Senate President Tom Birmingham, the favorite of the state's unions. In mid-July, after the withdrawal of former Democratic National Committee chair Stephen Grossman, a millionaire candidate with whom Reich was competing for suburban votes, Boston Herald columnist Wayne Woodlief declared that the "new dynamic" raised the possibility that Reich could actually win the nomination.

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