Deval Patrick Doesn’t Help Himself, Again

1192721775New year, same story: Deval Patrick is getting hammered from all sides. This time, it’s for supporting in-state tuition for the children of local illegal immigrants. The stance has earned him lots of press, and not the good kind.

Now would seem to be a poor time for Patrick to squander political capital on a fight that’s not a front-line priority like casinos, biotech, or local tax relief. And the governor’s not a rookie anymore. These amateur mistakes are supposed to be behind him. Patrick ostensibly understands Beacon Hill politics now—isn’t that what we all learned yesterday? So shouldn’t Patrick’s people have known better?

Actually, some of them did. Which is why it’s hard to be optimistic that the governor’s second year in office will be any smoother than his first.

Last month, I was discussing this New Yorker profile of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer with a Patrick administration official. The gist of the conversation was that, while Patrick and Sal DiMasi had butted heads over the past year, their relationship was infinitely preferable to the one Spitzer has with his legislative foil, Joe Bruno. This staffer was immensely thankful to be working in Boston, not Albany, and I got the sense that many of his colleagues had read the piece and felt the same way.

Patrick and Spitzer are alike in many ways. They were both swept into office last year by reformist fervor. They’re both charismatic politicians who appear destined for bigger stages. The two had pledged to whip their recalcitrant state legislatures into shape, and in their first year in office, they both suffered severe beatings at the hands of entrenched political power.

One of Spitzer’s greatest failures – one that’s detailed, at length, in the New Yorker piece – was his plan to distribute driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. He plunged headlong into a fight over the plan, “resolute in the idea that sound logic — or his logic, at least — would prevail.” Spitzer reasoned, “If it’s right, it’s right,” and that, if it’s right, it should be acted upon.

Of course, that’s not at all how things work in politics. Being right isn’t a guarantee of success, nor is being wrong a necessary precursor to failure. Victories have to be fought for, and when you waste your time fighting losing battles on peripheral issues, it weakens your ability to deliver when you have to.

Patrick’s people can (and do) read. They know how Spitzer’s driver’s license proposal helped cripple his core agenda. And then they watched as their boss waded out into Spitzer’s wake.

Never mind that Patrick’s stand on immigrant tuition could be the correct one. This past April, the Commonwealth’s Board of Higher Education endorsed a document that answers several questions about in-state tuition for immigrants.

The Board said that only immigrants who’d spent three years in local high schools and would have graduated would be eligible for tuition; that state and federal financial aid would not be available to them; that the number of students affected would be between 400 and 600 a year; that most state schools had empty seats that needed to be filled; and that granting in-state tuition would “likely result in extra revenue” for the university system – as much as $2.5 million.

All that’s great. It’s also, unfortunately, beside the point at the moment. House members remember what happened the last time they tried to stand up and do the right thing on immigrant tuition. They’re certainly wary of making that mistake twice, and at the moment, Patrick isn’t strong enough to stand up and make them act. If he does go over the legislature’s heads, the GOP will almost certainly hit back. One way or another, the legislature will wind up voting on immigrants, and when they do, election year fear will win the day.

It must feel great to stand up to demagoguery and win. But the wisdom of purposefully martyring yourself when you supposedly have so much else you want to do is another story altogether.