Politics & Policy

Deval Patrick: The Proto-Obama

The problems of the Massachusetts governor.

Gov. Deval Patrick, the proto–Barack Obama, is up for reelection in Massachusetts. Republicans hoping to defeat Obama would do well to study Patrick’s political fortunes — if only to see how poorly Massachusetts Republicans have done against one of the most unpopular governors in the country.

Like Barack Obama, Candidate Patrick seemed perfect. A political neophyte. A black man, raised by a single mother, winning scholarships to elite schools. He gave baby boomers, heady with thoughts of a past youth, a chance to vote for civil rights and boomer optimism. “It’s time to put our cynicism down,” he told them. “Put it down. Stand with me and take that leap of faith. Because I’m not asking you to take a chance on me. I’m asking you to take a chance on your own aspirations.”

Although he hadn’t voted much and was always careful not to wade into particulars, he trounced his opponent handily with the help of a sycophantic press corps in thrall to access and symbolism. Patrick promised tax cuts for the middle class, but his real selling points — designed by his campaign manager, David Axelrod — were “hope” and “change.” The leading newspaper said he would “reengage citizens and reinvigorate our democracy.” He would end the reign of Republican leadership, which had “governed by fear, low aim, and salesmanship for too long.”

Despite the best efforts of a renewed Massachusetts Republican party, Patrick seems to be on his way to a second term. A recent poll shows him with a 14-point lead over his closest challenger, Charlie Baker, former Harvard Pilgrim Health Care CEO. Baker has outraised Patrick nearly two to one, but despite a new slogan — “Had Enough?” — he still can’t break away from the most unpopular governor in America.

And it isn’t for lack of trying. Hoping to play a social-liberal/fiscal-conservative line, Baker picked Richard Tisei, a progressive and openly gay Republican state senator as his running mate, even going so far as to march with him in a gay-pride parade. Much good it did him. Mass Equality gave its endorsement to Patrick anyway, for the simple reason that Tisei “is not running for governor.”

For that, at least, Republicans should be grateful. Tisei, who boasts a perfect rating from NARAL, co-sponsored a transgender-rights bill and was the only Republican state senator to vote against an income-tax rollback. Worse yet, neither Baker nor Tisei is the outsider he claims to be. A perennial would-be candidate for governor, Baker spent eight years in Massachusetts politics, where he oversaw the scandalously over-budget “Big Dig,” as chief architect of the financing plan to keep the project going. Tisei, for his part, has spent 26 years — more than half of his life — on Beacon Hill. Sen. Scott Brown ran against the Massachusetts machine; Baker-Tisei promise to give it a good, bipartisan oiling.

Nowhere is that more clear than in their steadfast support for Romneycare, which bankrupts both the state and Massachusetts families, who already pay 12 percent above the national average for their health care. Last year, Governor Patrick admitted to a $294 million shortfall, and his insurance commissioner, Joseph Murray, has used his regulatory powers to reject rate increases, creating what the Wall Street Journal has described as “de facto price controls” on health care in Massachusetts. Unsurprisingly, the four largest health insurers have been hemorrhaging money. They’ve taken the matter to court, but it won’t be long before Massachusetts voters start to feel the cutbacks. In the five years since Romneycare passed, Massachusetts premiums grew 21 percent faster than the national average. Wait times to see a physician are up, too — with some waits approaching a hundred days. Baker’s silence on ballooning health-care costs has let a third candidate, treasurer Tim Cahill, an ex-Democrat, into the race. Cahill has been buoyed by conservative Democrats and by disaffected independents; the Republican Governors Association sees him as a threat and has spent a million on attack ads to take him down.

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It wasn’t supposed to be this way. With anemic polling hovering in the mid-30s, Governor Patrick should be going down to defeat. In his first campaign, one of his primary opponents dubbed his 10,000-square-foot second home in the Berkshires the “Taj Deval”; it subsequently emerged that he had mortgages amounting to $5.9 million. After his election, his profligate use of the state helicopter attracted attention; so did his $27,000 office redecoration and his wife’s $72,000 scheduler.

Then there were his policies. He sought to balance the budget on the backs of the poor through a controversial casino plan; he passed a huge new alcohol tax while reneging on promised property-tax reductions. And only now, in an election year, does he flirt with bringing back the wildly popular sales-tax holiday — after increasing those very taxes by 25 percent.

Sadly, these things are to be expected in Taxachusetts, but Patrick has pushed even Bay State voters too far. In a ceremony in 2007, he called 9/11 “a failure of human beings to understand each other, to learn to love each other.” This is a failure to which Patrick himself seems to have succumbed, when he recently suggested that Republican opposition to Obama was “almost on the level of sedition” and that Charlie Baker doesn’t see people behind policy — when Baker dared to suggest having people work a mere five weeks longer to qualify for unemployment benefits.

Patrick, of course, knows all about the little people. His book, A Reason to Believe: Lessons on Leadership and Life — for which he received a $1.35 million advance — promises to “give readers everywhere a whole new sense of what is possible in both their personal and civic lives, much the way that President Kennedy inspired the nation with his celebrated Profiles in Courage.”

That long-delayed book will be coming out in 2011 and has been written during his spare time — something voters can hope he has a lot more of after November, even if it is the hapless Charlie Baker who replaces him.

– Charles C. Johnson, a native of Massachusetts, is a fellow at the Claremont Review of Books.

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