Sweet Political Irony

As I’ve been watching the Republican primary debates over the past few months, I can’t help but to think about the casino bill that slowly wound its way through the state house and was finally signed yesterday by Governor Deval Patrick. Here’s why: Political primaries tend to be exercises in extremism. As many moderates have declared themselves to be unaffiliated or independent, both parties have become more insular; the remaining Democrats tend to be fairly liberal, while the remaining Republicans tend to be fairly conservative. This is why so many Democrats bemoan Obama’s record as not liberal enough, while many in the GOP think he’s a socialist devil: the moderates have left the parties.

But winning a political primary by appealing to your party’s base is very different than governing. Governing causes strange bedfellows — when you need to run a town, or state, or country, you sometimes need to compromise to keep your government running. You also don’t get to choose all the problems you’ll encounter: Obama didn’t pick to govern during the worst recession since the Great Depression in the same way that George W. Bush didn’t pick to govern during the worst attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor. These things happen. How you respond is what’s important.

As the governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney saw a crisis in the increase of residents without health insurance. He responded by gathering together his technocratic buddies, pouring over the data, and signing a bipartisan, moderate bill for the ostensibly liberal goal of universal healthcare. He included conservative measures, like a health care exchange and a personal responsibility mandate to buy one’s insurance, but also dipped into some special Medicare funding with the help of Senator Ted Kennedy. It’s Romney’s highest-profile accomplishment, one he’s had to defend over and over while seeking the GOP presidential nomination.

Governor Patrick, on the other hand, has been trying to lead a revenue-hungry state through the Great Recession. Meanwhile, the Mashpee Wampanoag were gathering investors to eventually open some kind of gaming establishment — if Patrick didn’t step in, the Indian tribe could have opened a slot parlor without sharing any revenue with the state. (Click here for the full story on the Mashpee’s troubled quest for a casino by senior editor Jason Schwartz.) What did Governor Patrick do? Push through a bipartisan casino bill that would carve out a niche for the Mashpee, assure Massachusetts a cut of the tribe’s revenues, and bring in an estimated $300 million to the state.

That’s why the primaries are so funny: Every candidate says they’ll act a certain way, but when it comes right down to governing, they often have to change tactics. This results in sweet, sweet irony: Governor Romney’s highest-profile accomplishment was universal healthcare, which became the model for the passage of a national health care act. One of Governor Patrick’s highest-profile accomplishments, meanwhile, is now the legalization of gambling. Neither are the type of legislation you’d expect from a Republican and a Democrat, respectively. But that’s how governing rolls.