By Peter S. Canellos | February 12, 2008
"WASHINGTON - In 2006, Deval Patrick ran for governor of Massachusetts on what his consultant, David Axelrod, called "the politics of aspiration." Patrick talked about hope - a lot. And when people said they were just words, he quoted the Declaration of Independence to upbraid those who think words don't matter. He told voters "Yes, we can," and later, more broadly, "Together, we can."
These words had a lot of power, as it turned out, propelling Patrick to a landslide. They echoed words that had been used by Barack Obama - also advised by Axelrod - in his record-setting Senate race in Illinois in 2004.
Last week, many voters in Massachusetts heard some of those words again at a massive rally for Obama's presidential campaign, joined by Patrick and the state's two senators, John Kerry and Ted Kennedy. But the next day, the people of Massachusetts went out and voted for the candidate of experience.
While voters in much of the country were becoming enthralled by Obama, who continues to gain momentum, Massachusetts voters struck a discordant note. Hillary Clinton beat Obama by 15 points in the Bay State, almost as big a margin as in New York, which she has represented in the Senate for seven years.
The reason may well be in those 2006 ballots, and the sense of disappointment that some people feel about Patrick's administration. And the Massachusetts result may carry words of warning for candidate Obama or, perhaps, President Obama, about the limits of the politics of hope.
Deval Patrick and Barack Obama are not similar personalities. Patrick is friendly and approachable; he's a good listener with an unassuming manner. Obama, by contrast, is stately and imposing, with the posture of a Roman senator. He stands out in a crowd, while Patrick blends in.
But they have things in common as well, two black men with inspiring personal stories and unimpeachable academic credentials who are upbeat about America. And, as Axelrod discovered, there is great power in those stories and the hopes they engender. For some, it's a validation of the American dream. For others, it's a truly colorblind society. But for most, it's a rejection of the sordid compromises of political life - a chance to choose someone who, for so many reasons, does not represent "the system."
Except that when it comes to the actual substance of issues, there's no special agenda attached to the politics of hope. Both Patrick in 2006 and Obama this year have websites full of positions on the issues, but they're not easily distinguishable from those of other Democrats. The issues tend to get lost in the language of hope, perhaps because they sound and feel routine, and don't strike an inspirational chord.
Instead, the candidates talk about creating a mandate for change that will supersede all the petty disputes that clog up government. Then, presumably, a lot of shared priorities will get through.
But as Patrick has shown, without an agenda that stands out from those of other candidates, it's hard to show whether real changes have occurred. It's not that most people think Patrick has been an unusually ineffective governor; it's that he's been precisely the usual kind of governor, and that's his problem.
He got off on the wrong foot when his administration bought a Cadillac as his official car; other governors have had similar missteps, but standards are higher for those promising change. Then he pleased many constituents by restoring services cut by his predecessor. But like many of his predecessors, he quickly ran afoul of a powerful House speaker. A lot of negative vibes started emanating from Beacon Hill. Not uncommon - but no change, either.
In the eyes of many voters, Patrick's biggest initiative - the thing he is really fighting for - is a plan to raise revenues by building three casinos. This has given hope to those who love slot machines and blackjack, or are unusually focused on the state revenue picture. But it has given absolutely no hope to those who suffer from gambling addictions, worry about traffic, or think casinos are tawdry.
So Patrick's record has been a mixed bag. But the usual ups and downs can be devastating to someone who has staked everything on bringing about change. Whether posited by a candidate for governor or for president, the politics of hope invites disappointment, simply because hope means something different to every person.
Last week, people in Massachusetts had a second chance for hope - and took a pass.
Peter S. Canellos is the Globe's Washington bureau chief. National Perspective is his weekly analysis of events in the capital and beyond. "