Desperately Seeking Deval
Patrick finally slipped out of the building through a back door and made it across the street to a diner for a cup of takeout chicken soup. On the sidewalk, he ran into Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts. As the two men exchanged a hurried greeting, Hurst urged Patrick to consider raising the income tax rather than the sales tax. In his Rotarian sort of way, Hurst was saying what almost everybody was saying to the governor: Look, I’m not doing too well right now. I know times are tough and sacrifices have to be made, but you can’t put it on me, on my tribe. Put it on somebody else.
It was the end of last year, the midpoint of Patrick’s first term, when that Boston Globe poll showed he had a 64 percent approval rating. After a bumpy start—replacing his original chief of staff and chief media adviser, weathering media tempests about money spent on upgrading office decorations and the motor pool—he had settled into the position. He and his staff had seemed to learn that appearances count. More substantively, his administration had gradually extended its political reach in the State House to put Patrick’s agenda into effect—with, for instance, the passage of a billion-dollar life-sciences initiative in 2008. Meanwhile, the legislature was in turmoil after a series of ethics scandals that featured the arrest of two state senators and the resignation of House Speaker Sal DiMasi. By early 2009, Patrick’s standing, inside and outside the State House, had never been greater.
At the same time, however, the breadth and depth of the global financial crisis was coming into view, and Patrick, like governors all over the country, found himself confronting an unprecedented challenge. Initially, voters appeared ready to trust him to lead the state through the downturn. (A 64 percent approval rating is a surprisingly high mark for a midterm governor whose state was, in fact, already in a recession.) Patrick had spent many Saturday nights in the fall going over the budget line by line, making the decisions about where to cut. But as the recession dragged on, month after month, a large portion of the population began to lose faith in his leadership.
Part of the disaffection was to be expected: When things go wrong, voters tend to blame whoever’s in charge, even if they know a mess of such magnitude isn’t his fault. Yet Patrick’s sense of himself, as a leader who rises above a short-term fixation on the news cycle, is also part of the problem. He reframed his reform initiatives and long-range economic development plans as important elements of his strategy for managing the crisis, and he continues to believe that cleaning up old messes and letting light into the State House will recruit citizens’ confidence in his administration. Massachusetts, as Patrick sees it, will come out of the crisis in good shape—with a leaner government, an updated education system, and a renewed commitment to growing economic sectors like life sciences and clean energy. But to a lot of voters, Patrick seems to be simply staying the course even when circumstances demand a fresh approach.
To Patrick’s prospective 2010 opponents, such constancy makes him an inviting target. If the governor won’t redefine himself in the face of the crisis, they will do it for him. They could depict him as a moralizing idealist, one who stubbornly persisted in squabbling with legislative leadership and holding the budget hostage over minor reforms while the economy collapsed. They could call him a failed populist who is now seriously out of touch.