Desperately Seeking Deval
Patrick circled back to the issue that was foremost on his mind, the tension between winning the political game and governing on personal values. “There are changes we have to make today that, if we make them with courage, we will be better off for in the long run. There may be a political price to pay, but they’re worth doing. Look, I want to get reelected, but there are things worth losing an election over, to get them right. There are decisions that are politically expedient, and things that are the right thing to do. I’d like them to align, but…” and he let the thought hang there. For a guy who wants to be governor for five and a half more years, he talks a lot about losing elections.
Patrick has put his bets on the table, convinced that if he can weather the short-term hits, the gambles will eventually pay off. The state’s economy is showing signs of a nascent recovery. A local breakthrough in clean energy or a major discovery in life sciences wouldn’t hurt, either. Meanwhile, “reform before revenue” has given him a legislative win, and he always has a potent hole card to play: his close relationship with the president of the United States. Massachusetts has already secured more than its proportional share of stimulus money, and he can call on Obama himself to provide a welcome boost during the campaign. Just the thought of Air Force One touching down on the runway at Hanscom Air Force Base would strike fear into the hearts of Patrick’s opponents.
But even if some of those bets come in, he still faces a major crisis, one partly of his own making. Reform, taking on the legislature, opening up the State House—those issues served him well in 2006, but they no longer carry the same weight with the electorate. Even if long-range planning and staying the course are the best way to handle the financial crisis, they aren’t winning over potential voters, and Baker will soon be wooing independents with “Read my lips: no new taxes.” Keeping one’s eyes on the prize is an estimable virtue, as long as you don’t forget a critical caveat: You have to win to stay in the game, and that means playing by the rules, no matter what you think of them—short-term news cycle, dueling sound bites, and all.
Patrick, who majored in English and American literature at Harvard, brought up a passage in Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi that has remained a touchstone for him. As a boy, dreaming of becoming a riverboat pilot, Twain was smitten by the river’s beauty, but his romantic view of it changed when he actually learned to do the job. A scenic ripple became a warning of a boat-snagging hazard; sunlight on the water became a portent of wind:
“It’s a beautiful passage,” said Patrick, and fell silent, contemplating it. Birdsong punctuated the stillness. Out in front of the house, a rental company delivered a rather elegant port-a-potty for a campaign fundraiser the Patricks would be hosting over the weekend. After a long pause, the governor went back to talking about The Building.
CARLO ROTELLA is director of American studies at Boston College.