BOSTON -- The chance for maverick Democrat John Silber to satisfy the public's anti-incumbent furor in this overwhelmingly Democratic state was improved last week when he beat the Republicans to the punch in proposing term limitations for state legislators.
That contradicted the prediction of his Republican opponent for governor, William Weld, about the course Silber would take in his first full-length speech following his upset Democratic primary win. "He's going to go hard left," Weld told us two hours earlier.
"Hard left" meant reiteration of Silber's opposition to the Weld-supported ballot referendum that would roll back Gov. Michael Dukakis's taxes to their 1988 levels. He did that, but deftly paired it with support for the nationwide populist issue of 1990: kicking out the professional politicians.
That Silber bullet confirms that the Boston University president seeking his first public office is probably the only Democrat who could be elected governor this year. In this economically depressed state, he is the only Democrat who might appease the voters' rage against the political establishment.
That rage endangers Sen. John Kerry, Rep. Chet Atkins (longtime state Democratic chairman) and more than a dozen state legislators. But Weld could miss the tide. He is a Boston Brahmin and abortion-rights liberal who quit as a Reagan administration assistant attorney general with an attack on beleaguered Attorney General Edwin Meese.
Silber is hardly considered a Democrat by party stalwarts such as lame-duck State Attorney General James Shannon. "He has plugged into the George Wallace vote," said Shannon, defeated for renomination in the Democratic primary's onslaught against incumbents that saw nine state representatives defeated. He predicted that if elected governor, Silber would be seeking the presidential nomination in 1992.
That is a view widely held and not specifically denied to us by Silber. He identifies with 30 million Democrats who, like him, voted for Ronald Reagan and George Bush. As governor, he told us, "My job will be reminding the Democratic hierarchy that they've lost touch with the people.
Silber is in the mold of Scoop Jackson, who once beat George Wallace in a Massachusetts presidential primary. He is no supply-sider and wants gasoline tax increases. And while advocating a "downsizing" of government, he calls the tax rollback -- supported by Weld -- the equivalent of "shooting yourself in the head."
That is why he attached opposition to the tax rollback to his proposal that six years is enough for all state legislators -- including incumbents. That ought to be a Republican issue. In fact, the White House urged the Weld campaign to move quickly on it. Paul Celucci, Weld's running mate for lieutenant governor, conceded to us the GOP had been caught sleeping.
Weld responded tardily that he would prefer a less radical limitation than six years. But he stressed that Silber's ally and one of the state's most powerful Democrats, State Senate President William Bulger, long has opposed term limitations.
Therein lies the heart of Republican strategy to connect Weld with the voter revolt. The astute and articulate Bulger, target of unremitting news media assault, shows up in GOP polls with higher negatives than anybody in the state except Dukakis. Republicans plan to hammer home incessantly that Billy Bulger is John Silber's buddy.
He is indeed. Their friendship was sealed when Silber granted a Boston University scholarship for each of Bulger's beloved parochial schools (as well as public schools). Like every other friend of Silber, Bulger has engaged in bitter arguments with him and, says the conventional Statehouse wisdom, they won't be talking by next St. Patrick's Day.
But even if they are bound to clash on many questions (including term limitations), the alliance with Bulger is natural for Silber. They both have been shut out of a Democratic Party dominated by liberals they both deplore. They are collaborating in a party insurrection that may well spread beyond this old city of rebellion.