Yes, he can
A Patrick supporter outlines how the governor could rise again.
Five years ago, two friends and I started a political blog called BlueMassGroup.com, in part to try to help elect a Democratic governor in 2006. When Deval Patrick arrived on the scene, we liked what we saw and heard. So we, along with thousands of activists around the state, worked hard to help him win. We thought his progressive policies, together with his pledge to clean up “the Big Dig culture of Beacon Hill” (a turn of phrase that originated on our blog), held a lot of promise for fixing what ailed Massachusetts.
The promise is still there. But despite several important policy successes, Patrick’s first term has not always lived up to his 2006 campaign. Of course, Patrick was dealt a bad hand. The worst economic downturn since 1929 was not his fault, and Patrick’s low approval ratings are in part attributable to the harsh realities of managing a fiscal crisis not of his making.
Nonetheless, that unpopularity also stems from self-inflicted political wounds, whether they were tin-eared gaffes (the office drapes) or policy choices with which many of his more liberal supporters profoundly disagreed (casinos). Together, they have created fissures in the coalition that elected him.
So, what to do between now and November? Here are some ideas:
Get out more. One of Patrick’s greatest strengths is communication. With his eloquent and passionate speaking style, he draws listeners in and makes sure they know they have a personal stake in what he is saying. But for weeks after his inauguration, Patrick practically disappeared. That allowed the campaign’s momentum to flag and gave the media a chance to control the narrative of his governorship -- which they happily did after his early missteps.
Since then, there have been a few bursts of 2006-style direct interaction with the people, such as the successful series of town hall meetings in the summer of 2008, but the effort has been sporadic rather than sustained. Patrick needs to take his case directly to the people, just as he did in 2006. And he has to do it himself. He cannot expect surrogates, much less the media (who want nothing more than a close race), to make his case for him.
Get the message right. Like it or not, perception matters. Most people don’t have time to sift through the fine print of every major piece of legislation. To them, relatively minor moves, remarks, or gestures can become significant indicators of how their government is doing. Patrick needs to accept that things like the Marian Walsh appointment, however small-bore they may seem when compared with, say, a multi-billion-dollar transportation reform bill, really do affect the way people view Beacon Hill. They make people cynical, which undermines the very essence of Patrick’s 2006 campaign, namely, getting people to put aside their cynicism about government and “check back in.”
But Patrick could overcome that by sending positive signals. He could ditch the idea for those unpopular casinos, which (as recent events in Connecticut and Rhode Island have shown) are no more recession-proof than any other industry. And he could push for transparency in the tax expenditure budget (which includes tax credits for industries like film and life sciences). That would further his campaign theme of increased accountability in government and make the budget process fairer by putting everything on the chopping block. Steps like these, which are both good policy and true to his 2006 campaign, could re-energize his base.
Run hard on the record. Patrick does have an impressive list of accomplishments. He can proudly point to pension, ethics, and transportation reform, groundbreaking environmental laws, new rules for car insurance and police details (much discussed but never achieved by Patrick’s Republican predecessors), and economic policies that show Massachusetts recovering more quickly from the recession than the rest of the country.
But that message isn’t getting out, probably because he isn’t delivering it himself, and because people are receiving, at best, mixed signals. Which takes us back to points one and two. If Deval Patrick goes out into the communities, explains what he has achieved and how those successes are already moving Massachusetts forward, admits that he hasn’t always been perfect, has a real conversation about policy differences, and makes the case for another four years, people will listen. Whatever the outcome, that’s where it has to start.