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Deval Patrick Was an Overrated Governor

Mitt Romney and Charlie Baker both oversaw historic liberal legislation in Massachusetts. Where is Patrick's signature accomplishment?

Obama and Patrick at a bipartisan dinner in D.C. on January 19, 2009. (Joshua Roberts/Pool/Getty)

When Deval Patrick was preparing to leave the job of Massachusetts governor five years ago, the state Democratic Party found itself in a unique bind—not through any fault of his, mind you. The local economy was in good order, and aside from an early foofaraw around his office’s use of public funds (a strong predilection for luxury vehicles and damask drapes gave rise to the nickname “Coupe Deval”), his time in office was free of the kind of self-dealing that is common in the Commonwealth.

No, the problem was that the outgoing governor was actually too popular, such that his potential successors were unable to define themselves against his success. At that year’s Democratic convention in Worcester, venerable local reporter David Bernstein wrote, Patrick’s spotlight shone “so bright that the candidates [were] indistinguishable in the glow,” giving the impression that they were mere subalterns grasping for his unwanted third term.

When Republican health care executive Charlie Baker won the race to replace Patrick that fall, it seemed both a quintessentially Massachusetts result—a phalanx of sunny GOP technocrats have prevailed in six of the state’s last eight gubernatorial elections—and a national omen. At the same moment Patrick left the stage, Barack Obama began his own departure from public life. Obama’s enduring popularity among Democrats casts a long shadow over the contest to succeed him.

Hillary Clinton’s meaningless popular vote victory left open the question of who will lead the party into the future, and Patrick believes he can provide an answer. Last week, the former governor officially joined a primary field that, tallying candidates already withdrawn as well as those still facing a grim yuletide in Des Moines, numbers nearly 30. While he might cut an Obama-like figure, though, it’s difficult to see him as the second coming of hope and change—in large part because his record as Massachusetts governor looks underwhelming in hindsight.

Any appraisal of Patrick’s chances in the primary, no matter how pessimistic, must account for the exceptional political gifts he showed in his home state. In all aspects save its governorship, Massachusetts is a partisan monoculture. Its entire U.S. House delegation has been Democratic for over 20 years; no Republican senator has been elected to a full term since 1972, with Scott Brown’s madcap Washington holiday now a distant memory. To capture the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2006, Patrick had to wage an outsider candidacy for the ages, cutting in front of every dutiful party lieutenant from Provincetown to the Berkshires.

The primary field included former Massachusetts Attorney General Tom Reilly, a graven-faced Irish pol seen for years as a governor-in-waiting. While Reilly adopted a sequence of incoherent nonpositions on gay marriage, the ultimate Bush-era wedge issue, Patrick projected a forthrightly liberal vibe—not just on LGBT rights, but also on the death penalty and a long-debated proposal to create a windmill farm off Cape Cod. Within months, he was polling even with Reilly, and he ultimately sent the former front-runner to a third-place finish.

Patrick’s general election victory was almost taken for granted after that vertiginous ascent, but it was historic nonetheless. In crushing his Republican opponent, Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey, by 20 points, Patrick won more votes than any Democratic gubernatorial nominee in half a century. He became the only Democrat elected Massachusetts governor in my not-particularly-brief lifetime and remains only the second black governor of any state since Reconstruction.

Along the way, though, an odd thing happened: Patrick became paired in the minds of political journalists with another rising star in the party, also black, Harvard-educated, and inspiring on the stump. It wasn’t just Patrick’s and Obama’s high-flown oratory, or their ties to Chicago (not much of a connection, anyway: Patrick left the South Side at age 14 on a boarding school scholarship, while Obama moved there as an adult) that suggested a symmetry. Rather, it was the uncanny similarity of their political profiles, mediated by the arrival of a remarkable political moment: Never before had the country seen an entirely plausible future black president, let alone two. Both men could supercharge black turnout without alienating white independents.

David Axelrod served as their joint consigliere, and he might have steered either to the Oval Office. When Obama was caught lifting lines from a Patrick speech at his own campaign event, it was remarkable, both in that he effectively dodged the plagiarism criticisms that destroyed Joe Biden’s 1988 presidential campaign, and that Patrick actually delivered the lines better than the party’s best speech-giver since John F. Kennedy.

Their political fortunes remained intermingled while both were in office—when Patrick handily won a second term in 2010, a year in which Democrats dropped 11 governorships nationwide, it augured Obama’s own successful reelection two years later—but that’s where the similarities end; their tenures as executives do not bear comparison.

It is simply inexplicable that Patrick could have served eight years as governor and not left behind a trophy case of liberal wins, or even a single capstone accomplishment. Just in his first years in office, Obama helped avert a second Great Depression, re-regulated Wall Street, and served as namesake to a massive new health care entitlement. After losing his congressional majorities, the president brokered the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord.

Patrick had no recourse to foreign policy, but neither did he require it. He was the well-loved Democratic governor of a state with ample appetite for policy experimentation, enjoying loyal supermajorities in the state legislature. His Republican predecessor, Mitt Romney, pioneered universal health care from Beacon Hill; his Republican successor, Baker, signed a generous paid leave bill last year.

But look for Patrick’s legacy-maker and you’ll be disappointed. He can boast of a wearying fight over whether to let civilians direct traffic at construction sites, a public pension overhaul that will save the state billions and quicken the pulse of exactly zero activists in New Hampshire, an ambitious education reform drive that strengthened an already strong school system, and what else? Casino gambling?

It wasn’t long before his idleness exacted a price. Patrick failed to steward a necessary tax increase to finance repairs to public transportation, and almost as if on cue, the system collapsed during his first winter out of office. A lack of care often showed around the aspects of bureaucracy that millions of people depend on: Miniscandals mushroomed at the parole board, the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, and the state drug lab. Collectively, they gave the impression of important details being neglected, even as the governor made big speeches and fielded questions about future presidential runs.

Well he’s in the arena, at last. And his popularity in Massachusetts—38 percent of voters there said they thought he should run for president in a survey last year, compared with just 32 percent who said that about Elizabeth Warren—makes him a more legitimate contender than some believe. But even if he’s able to re-alchemize the Obama coalition of 2008 and 2012, he’s shown no signs of being able to govern as effectively. For that, he needs more than David Axelrod.