The Campaign Spot

Will Deval Patrick’s 2010 Strategy Save Obama?

A fascinating look at the strategic thinking in the White House right now, over at The New Republic:

Of all the historical analogies urged on Obama following November’s drubbing—Truman in ’48, Reagan after ’82, Clinton after ’94—the one the White House has opted for is easily the most obscure. That would be Patrick in ’10—as in Deval Patrick, the recently re-elected governor of Massachusetts. Months after Patrick signed the state’s first sales-tax hike in 33 years, political chatterers gave him little chance of surviving to a second term. Not only did he face the same foul, anti-incumbent mood that elected Scott Brown, he’d drawn an attractive GOP candidate in businessman Charlie Baker.

Patrick’s handlers recommended that he distance himself from liberals in the state legislature—and, above all, downplay the tax increase. The governor overruled them. His first commercial highlighted the “combination of deep cuts and new revenue” he’d accepted to close the state’s budget shortfall. “He all but said, ‘I raised taxes.’ Jesus Christ,” recalls one still-traumatized adviser. “He thought the way to do it was to be true to what he ran on [in 2006]”—the belief that voters will support someone who levels with them, even if they don’t love every decision. In the end, Patrick and his “politics of conviction” won by a comfortable seven-point margin.

It’s not hard to see the appeal of this narrative in Obamaland, whose principal also fancies himself a teller of hard truths. The way the president’s inner circle sees it, the re-election of Patrick—a longtime Obama pal and former client of his message guru David Axelrod and campaign manager David Plouffe—affirms the president’s bias against desperate reinventions. “[Patrick] may be a model for Obama in 2012,” says one strategist close to the White House. “Let them write you off for dead, say how stupid you are”—while you remind voters why they fell for you in the first place. So far, at least, the pundits are living up to their end of the bargain. The question is whether the president can live up to his.

Say, fellas . . .

1) Who’s going to be your Tim Cahill? This article doesn’t mention that Patrick won 48 percent of the vote in heavily Democratic Massachusetts. Patrick won because the anti-incumbent vote was split by Cahill, who won the 2006 treasurer’s election as a Democrat, served for a while under Patrick, and then rebelled, changing his party to “unenrolled” (equivalent to “independent” in Massachusetts) so he could challenge Patrick. Despite Charlie Baker and the RGA spending enormous resources to try to drive him out, Cahill won 8 percent on Election Day. (A detailed analysis of Cahill’s spoiler role can be found here.)

2) You can only alienate so many supporters before you’re doomed. Deval Patrick’s share of the vote in 2010 was 7 percentage points lower than his share in 2006. If Obama sees similar proportional erosion, he’ll be trying to win the presidency with 46 percent of the vote.

3) Guys, it’s Massachusetts. Any Democrat who does not mock Red Sox fans has a much larger margin for error and cushion than a Democrat running nationally.

4) The economy in 2012 remains an X factor, but it’s worth remembering unemployment rate in Massachusetts was 8.4 percent in September and 8.1 percent in October — not all that good, but almost 2 points better than the national average. Patrick could at least point to some signs of economic recovery on his watch: “The Massachusetts economy, which relies more on technology and business spending, and less on housing and consumer spending, has recovered from the recent recession faster than the nation as a whole, creating jobs over the past year at about twice the national rate. Since January, the state has added nearly 50,000 jobs, but still has far to go to recover all the jobs lost in the last recession.”

There are a lot of reasons why the Obama team would think of Deval Patrick as a role model for the 2012 campaign — he’s a David Axelrod client, after all — but at this point, there are a lot more reasons to think his strategies won’t get the same results on a national level.


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