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Deval Patrick's Hard-to-Keep Promises

How Massachusetts' inspiring governor hurt himself with his lofty campaign rhetoric.


Alan Ehrenhalt

Alan is a Governing senior editor.

We campaign in poetry," Mario Cuomo, the former governor of New York, once famously said, "but when we're elected, we're forced to govern in prose."

In the quarter-century since Cuomo made that remark, hundreds of American politicians have quoted it, not least Barack Obama during his presidential campaign in 2008. It seems fair to assume that virtually everyone who has used the line has understood what it means. It means that campaigns are a time for statements of idealism, soaring rhetoric and sweeping promises. And service in public office is a time for tempering that vision with the limits and compromises of the political process.

It's a simple and almost self-evident idea. And yet it continues to trip up some very smart political leaders who fail to recognize where the poetry must end and the prose begin. Or, they recognize it but find themselves enmeshed in the expectations created by their pre-inaugural eloquence. Some might put Obama himself in this category. I think it's far too early to make that judgment. Besides, there's a more clear-cut current example on the American political scene. It's the governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick.

Three years ago, Patrick swept into office by a margin of nearly half a million votes. He was the second African-American governor in American history and the first Democrat to win the office in Massachusetts in 20 years. Articulate, persuasive, highly educated and widely experienced, Patrick moved into control of a state government dominated overwhelmingly at all levels by his own party. His inauguration in January of 2007 looked as much like a coronation as it did a conventional swearing-in.

Today, according to most recent nonpartisan polls, Patrick retains the support of little more than one-third of the state's voters. Only 29 percent of those sampled in the most recent survey said they felt he deserved a second term. He may yet win one next year, because his opposition is likely to be divided between a Republican and an independent. But it will be almost impossible for him to gain the majority support that he had in 2006.

Just what has Deval Patrick done wrong? By most political standards, nothing terribly much. He made some small missteps in judgment at the outset, using a Cadillac as his official car and overspending on office furniture. There were some more serious ones in his second year, particularly when he pushed hard for a bill to legalize casino gambling and then seemed to forget about it on the eve of the vote. In general, though, he has been an intelligent and hard-working governor, and one whose approach has been well within the comfort zone of one of the most liberal electorates in the nation.

It's easy to come up with possible explanations for Patrick's trouble. These are, obviously, difficult times, and anyone unlucky enough to govern in the midst of a recession can expect some erosion in his popularity. Most other big-state governors have. But this argument isn't sufficient in Patrick's case. For one thing, Massachusetts' fiscal problems, while undeniably serious, are nowhere near as intractable as those that face David Paterson in New York, Ed Rendell in Pennsylvania or Arnold Schwarzenegger in California.

Then there is the problem of being the leader of a top-heavy majority in what is essentially a one-party state. Swollen majorities are almost always hard to handle. The Democrats are so dominant in Massachusetts--the 2008 election gave them 35 of 40 seats in the state Senate and 143 of 160 in the House--that they don't even constitute a party in the conventional sense. They comprise virtually every shade of ideological belief. Some of them would be Republicans if they lived in a state where the GOP was viable. So no matter what Patrick's party looked like on Inauguration Day, this was not one big happy family gathering to pledge eternal loyalty.

But Patrick knew that perfectly well when he came into office. He also understood Cuomo's comment that governing takes place in prose. He even talked about it. I don't think Patrick's deepest problem lies in anything he has said lately, or even in any major step he has taken over three years in office. His big problem is the things he said, and allowed to be said, during his 2006 run for the statehouse.

During that campaign, Patrick as Democratic nominee presented not only a platform of better schools, safe streets and reduced property taxes but also an all-encompassing promise to change the political culture of Massachusetts. He made it many times, declaiming about "a transformed politics and a whole new civic life." He promised to involve the ordinary voter in the crucial decisions of his administration, building a grassroots network to compete with the morally relaxed traditions that had long prevailed in the Capitol on Beacon Hill. "We run a grassroots campaign," he told Commonwealth Magazine, "because we believe in a different way of governing, not just of winning."

Most of the media ate it up. One liberal advocacy group called him "the most inspiring leader and speaker in Massachusetts in a generation." The Boston Globe praised him as a man who had exceeded expectations throughout his lifelong rise from poverty to power, and would no doubt exceed them again.

The trouble was that Patrick couldn't possibly exceed the expectations he had generated. Not only that, but he had set up a situation in which it was impossible even to meet them. What exactly can a governor do to create, as Patrick promised, an unprecedented politics of renewed citizenship? And if it could be done, would it make for better government? Patrick didn't provide any specifics on this during the campaign, and those writing about him didn't really ask for any. They, like most residents of the state, found the words themselves inspiring.

As they did the words of his inaugural address, in which he declared that "change is not always comfortable or convenient or welcome. But it is what we hoped for, what we have worked for, what you voted for, and what you shall have."

Now, berating politicians for promising change is a little like starting a crusade against college students drinking. Whatever you say, lots of them are going to do it. But Patrick pushed the change button a little too hard. He promised things he couldn't possibly deliver, and he has spent three full years trying to extricate himself from that trap.

At times he has done this with admirable candor. Early this year, as he prepared his state of the state address amid a deepening recession, he said that the time for soaring rhetoric had ended, and that his job was primarily to "rally people to keep going, and to hang in." He described his primary role as comforter-in-chief.

On other occasions, though, Patrick has seemed to forget that the poetry reading was over. In the summer of 2008, as he announced a new education program, he suddenly reverted to full campaign mode. "Our goal," he said, "is to reinvent and reengineer an entire system and all its components. We are not tinkering."

This isn't a column on education, so I won't dwell for long on the fact that people as smart as Patrick have been working at the nation's educational shortcomings for 25 years, and have made incremental progress at best. Promising revolution for a whole state in one fell swoop was not only unrealistic but also revived memories of the eloquent over-promising that he had engaged in two years earlier.

Put all this together, and it's no surprise that Patrick, who in many ways has been a capable and creative governor, now is viewed by so many of his constituents as a failure. Not long ago, in responding to one of the statewide surveys, a 71-year-old retired nurse explained her disillusionment with the governor's economic policies by saying that "I just somehow expected him to be more ready and have more of a plan in place than he does now." It wasn't really a fair criticism--Patrick has a plan, at least on paper, for most any problem you can name--but given the lofty rhetoric on which he had floated into office, it was more than understandable.

If we can't persuade political candidates to stop making promises, what could we ask of them? How about this: Promise something tangible and achievable, do it, and then proceed from there. Occasionally, you find a candidate who sees the wisdom of this. Running for governor of Arkansas in 2006, the same year Patrick ran in Massachusetts, Mike Beebe didn't raise expectations of a new brand of government or a new ethical climate in Little Rock. He promised that, if elected, he would reduce the sales tax on groceries. When Beebe took office, that was done relatively quickly, and then the governor moved on to broader--but still tangible--accomplishments. That could be part of the reason Beebe will be running for reelection next year virtually unopposed, while Patrick, so much more eloquent and visionary, will be fighting for political survival.

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