Watching Tim Cahill over the past few days, I'm reminded of the uncomfortable feeling of vicarious embarrassment that I used to get when watching Seinfeld - the cringing, "George Costanza coming out of the bathroom with his shirt off" sensation that renders me just barely able to continue watching.
At least half a dozen times since the latest and most shocking in a series of Cahill campaign evacuations came yesterday, followed quickly by Cahill's bizarre "Winston Churchill is my running mate" press conference, I've been asked "what in God's name is he thinking?" In the short term I don't think there's any real mystery to Cahill's knee-jerk, "you bastards ain't gettin' ridda me" reaction to all of the ship-jumping. He's pissed. The people who were supposed to be helping him get elected keep kicking him in the giblets and heading for the door, and Cahill is quite understandably ticked off. Very human.
Perhaps as importantly, for the first time since polls started showing him in the single digits, the press is paying attention to Tim Cahill. A lot of attention. For at least a few days he'll have a constant scrum following him around, a captive audience for his new, cliche-ridden, Rocky/Rudy/Miracle on Ice stump speech. Perched at the center of his own tiny political universe, Cahill can be forgiven for failing to recognize that the press is paying attention to him not in the way they attend to Charlie Baker and Deval Patrick, but rather in much the same way that they occasionally pay attention to that odd fellow who runs around Manhattan playing guitar in a pair of tighty whities and a cowboy hat.
So there's no great mystery to why Cahill is stubbornly denying stark reality and staying in the race, at least for now. As to the parallel but slightly different question - how is he staying in the race? - that one is even easier. Cahill has a lot of money yet to spend. So long as that remains the case (and he's about to get a big old infusion of taxpayer money to further fuel his delusion, on top of the approximately $2 million he has left of the pile of cash he built up over eight years as a pay-to-play Treasurer), Cahill can stick around. Sure his campaign is the political equivalent of one of George Romero's zombies, stone cold dead yet still walking, but as anyone who has seen one of the Living Dead flicks knows, those things can be hard to put down.
More interesting to me than the fact of Cahill's steady shedding of key personnel is the effect of that sloughing off on the painstakingly constructed "independent" persona Cahill has spent the last year building. Gone are the McCain consultants, imported from Arizona to transform Cahill the Beacon Hill fixture into a 'mavericky' outsider. Gone is the fiscally conservative campaign manager. Gone is the Republican running mate, and with him whatever remained of Cahill's Republican support.
And who is left? Who comprised the group of angrily enthusiastic Cahill backers cheering gamely through their candidate's semi-coherent spleen ventilation yesterday? Why, they are Cahill's original base, assembled long before he ever thought of bolting the Democratic party to side-step a primary challenge to Governor Patrick: the public employee unions (who Cahill secured early on by promising not to touch the bloated public pension system), and the surprisingly wide swath of voters who either work for an agency Cahill oversees, are related to someone who works for an agency Cahill oversees, or have realistic expectations of working for state government should Cahill be elected. The political patronage set, in other words.
Cahill's gubernatorial campaign persona has always been awkwardly clothed in a cloak of strained contradictions, the inevitable result of his attempt to hold that quintessentially Democratic base while simultaneously striving to appeal to anti-government conservative independents. Now, abandoned by everyone who lent to his subterfuge some slight veneer of credibility, he is both free and forced to return to his comfort zone.
Pushed to the edge of self-parody, Tim Cahill is now again as ever he was: a Beacon Hill Machine Democrat, political patron and apologist for budget-sucking union excess. He is less the "alternative to Deval Patrick" that he wished to be than a purer distillation of the worst characteristics of Patrick's first (and hopefully only) term as Governor.