Deval Patrick: too little, too late or a ray of sunshine? by Marjorie Arons-Barron

There is no better campaigner than Deval Patrick. He’s charismatic, warm, visionary and inspirational.  He appeals to our better sides, and has the kind of personality that really could help to heal the searing wounds of division. That he is African-American indicates his potential appeal to a constituency whose enthusiasm is essential to a Democratic win.

The two-term governor has plenty of credibility in the party’s debate over Medicare for all (a  ten-year, $30 trillion cost, eliminating all private coverage) versus adding a public option built on the Affordable Care Act.  Patrick oversaw the successful implementation of improved access to health coverage in Massachusetts, which became the model for Obamacare.  He also worked on initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Some Democrats are already sneering that Patrick, after leaving Bill Clinton’s Justice Department where he headed the Civil Rights Division,  had powerful positions in corporate America, from vice president and general counsel at Texaco (with which Patrick’s DOJ had reached a settlement previously) and Coca Cola, to his board position with sketchy subprime mortgage lender Ameriquest, and now Bain, Mitt Romney’s private equity company, where Patrick’s role focuses on socially beneficial investing.)  His high-level company positions don’t necessarily lead corporate America to embrace him. Forbes magazine recently denounced Patrick’s history of raising taxes, his veto of a bill to increase fiscal transparency in retiree pension funds, his failure to address the state’s bonded indebtedness.

Massachusetts voters eventually forgot Patrick’s earliest missteps, the costly drapes in his Corner Office redecoration and his choice of a Cadillac as his official car, but people do remember the more serious managerial messes: fraud at the state drug lab, scandal at the Department of Families and Children (which still dogs supreme manager and nation’s most popular governor, Charlie Baker), incompetence in effecting changes in the online state health insurance system. Well before Patrick left office, there was a growing unease among the public that, despite his personal charisma, state government under his leadership was not living up to its promise.   Nor is he helped by the resurrection of stories about his intervention in the sex offender registry listing of his brother-in-law, convicted of (spousal) rape and Patrick’s retaliation against two women who had disagreed with the Governor’s actions. He fired the two, who worked at the state’s Sex Offender Registry Board. That will not play well in today’s Me-Too environment.

News media have widely noted that, at this stage of the primary season, the choicest campaign operatives have committed elsewhere, and dollars have also been pledged to other candidates.  Money isn’t an issue for this week’s other likely late entrant, Michael Bloomberg, but it would certainly seem to be so for Deval Patrick, who may have to rely on his corporate allies to put together a Super Pac on his behalf.  These metrics could change depending on the outcomes in the Iowa caucuses, the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries.  538’s Nate Silver notes that a year ago, in the earliest stage of the campaign, Patrick registered a 0-1 percent support in national presidential polls and just 4-6 percent in Massachusetts.  Patrick was given marginal speaking times at this weekend’s Democratic meetings in California and Nevada, where he was positioned alongside spiritual activist Marianne Williamson.

The Patrick campaign seems rooted in the premise that  front runner Joe Biden doesn’t have what it takes to go the distance against Donald Trump.  Biden has certainly had his stumbles, but he showed in the November 11 CNN Town Hall  that he can be forceful, somewhat clear-eyed, and empathetic.  While  he had his word-salad moments, he was particularly good in criticizing the costly Medicare-for-All approach and strong on foreign policy, offering the promise of restoring the United States’ reputation in the world of nations and rebuilding its alliances in a post-Trump era.  It’s unclear how strongly Biden will present in Wednesday’s upcoming debate, but Patrick won’t be there at all. Nor will Michael Bloomberg, the former New York billionaire whose announced candidacy seems imminent.

Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders don’t seem to be interested in those slightly left of center who want to keep choice in the health care system.  Barack Obama, without mentioning them by name, this weekend warned about the potential negative impact of the far left’s ideological rigidity and revolutionary intonations on the nation’s ability to rid itself of the grotesque White House incumbent. We’re left to wonder why one looking for a stronger, moderately liberal alternative to Biden would have to look beyond rising star Pete Buttigieg, or Amy Klobuchar and Corey Booker.

In New Hampshire, Patrick could draw votes from Warren but would more likely hurt Biden.  Patrick could end up helping the candidacies of Sanders and Warren by splitting the moderate vote. He could even win in New Hampshire. Then, again, so too did late Senator Paul Tsongas, who came in ahead of Bill Clinton, and look how that turned out. (Is Patrick’s real long-term goal being nominated to the Supreme Court?)

Anyone who claims to know how this will all shake out is a pundit to take with a grain of salt. Suffice it to say that Deval Patrick could end up bruised and wondering why he subjected his family to all this.  Or he could shake up the race and surprise us in ways that benefit civil discourse in the public square.