Analysis & Comment

Opinion | What You Need to Know About Deval Patrick

People have been speculating about Deval Patrick’s real motives for as long as he has been in politics. I certainly have: When I first met him in 2005, I was convinced that his long-shot campaign for Massachusetts governor was really just a profile-raising exercise for a later Senate campaign.

Over years of covering him since, I have seen, and taken part in, speculation that Mr. Patrick wanted to be attorney general, Supreme Court justice, vice president, ambassador and president. I have studied his proposals, tracked his travel and gossiped with his associates in efforts to divine the secret strategies at work.

This week, as the governor began an 11th-hour presidential campaign, my analysis ends in the same place it always does: There’s no secret. When Mr. Patrick feels that he has something important to contribute, he says so.

In 2005, he believed that Massachusetts needed to shake off the cautious skepticism that had led to 16 years of Republican governors elected to temper a Democratic-led legislature. Mr. Patrick offered himself as an optimistic, ambitious leader, rallying people to believe that their government could do great things.

Today, looking at the national picture, he views himself as the cure for a Democratic Party struggling to respond to a divisive Republican president. As he sees them, there are presidential candidates who retreat in timidity, others who respond with divisiveness in kind, and those whose calculated attempts at inspiration have fallen flat with voters.

He sees himself as the only one who can present genuine, optimistic leadership to lead the party — and the country — forward to a post-Trump era.

Quite a heady thing to believe, for sure. Let nobody say that he lacks self-regard.

Indeed, it might be hubris for Mr. Patrick to believe he can succeed where, in his view, the other Democratic candidates have failed. Odds are good that he will end up as just one more castoff among the dozens who have envisioned a nonexistent path to the nomination.

Still, it’s not hard to see the vacancy that calls him — the lack of a unifying optimism leading the party.

Mr. Patrick, in his comments since entering the race, has seemed to express disappointment in Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar as uninspiring; and in Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as extreme and divisive.

“I’m not running,” he said at an event in California over the weekend, “to be president of the Democrats. I am running to be president of the United States. There’s a difference.”

But his decision to enter the race might be more about Cory Booker, Julián Castro and Kamala Harris. The campaigns of all three appear in tatters, with single-digit poll numbers and empty campaign coffers. Barring a significant turnaround, all might be finished before the New Hampshire primaries.

Fourteen years ago, Mr. Patrick’s egotistic presumption sounded equally implausible. And then, he got on the stump.

Over months on the trail, this corporate boardroom professional from the South Side of Chicago recruited an army of devotees, ranging from young idealistic progressives to converted veterans of Massachusetts machine politics.

One cried on the phone with me this week, explaining what Mr. Patrick meant to him.

With most of the political establishment against him, and running third among Democrats in polls, Mr. Patrick stood in front of roughly 4,500 party delegates in Worcester. His 10-minute speech urging “hope” — later liberally borrowed by his friend Barack Obama — electrified the crowd. People removed his opponents’ pins from their lapels as he spoke.

He won nearly 60 percent of delegates’ votes and went on to win the primary and general elections.

He was similarly counted out for re-election in 2010 — a national Republican wave election during the Great Recession, in a state that earlier in the year had famously elected Scott Brown in a special election over the Democrat Martha Coakley.

At the time of Mr. Brown’s election, Mr. Patrick had a 22 percent approval rating, and struggled to top 30 percent in polls against the Republican and Independent candidates.

Again, he got on the stump. And made people believe in him again.

In the final stretch run, President Obama’s top political advisers told Mr. Patrick that he needed to run negative ads to counter a late national anti-Democrat surge. Mr. Patrick declined the advice, finishing on his typical optimistic tone.

Mr. Patrick won by six percentage points, while Democrats elsewhere took, as President Obama put it, “a shellacking.”

It will, of course, be even more difficult to pull off a similar trick in the national campaign he’s in now.

He is getting in late, without staff or funding — though he should have enough funding to put a campaign together, thanks to his long list of business and political contacts, and what remains of his grass-roots devotees. He also has a small circle of very wealthy friends capable of funding a super PAC to make up an advertising gap.

His idea of transformational change hasn’t kept up with the Democratic Party’s progressivism. And his actual record in office, and outside it, has not always justified the optimism of his speeches.

Early indications are that Mr. Patrick will draw media attention. He should also be able to gather decent crowds in next-door New Hampshire. Also, in South Carolina: Don’t underestimate the stature of one of only two African-Americans ever to be elected governor in the United States.

If it goes nowhere, well, it’s a three-month speaking tour before retiring to his beautiful western Massachusetts estate.

I can assure you, thanks to my years of fruitless speculation, that he has no ulterior political goal to worry about spoiling. Mr. Patrick is not secretly gunning for vice president, or attorney general, or anything else.

He really thinks the country might want him, and even need him, to be president. It might seem ridiculous, and implausible.

But wait until he gets on the stump.

David S. Bernstein is a freelance journalist who has written about Massachusetts for 30 years.

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