Monday, May 5, 2008

President Obama: The Preview?

May 3, 2008; Page A9:

"Sen. Obama and I are long-time friends and allies. We often share ideas about politics, policy and language."
-- Deval Patrick

There may not be two politicians on the national stage more alike than Barack Obama and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. Both went to Harvard Law, are African-American politicians with mass appeal, and use soaring rhetoric to promise a bold new postpartisan politics.

But the two men differ in one critical area: Mr. Patrick has an executive record. And, unfortunately for the senator from Illinois, it reveals that the Patrick-Obama brand of politics isn't really new. It is, in fact, something akin to the failed liberalism of old, in a new vessel.

Mr. Patrick, 52, was swept into office in a landslide in 2006. He won because Democrats were energized to capture the governor's mansion and because he presented himself as an historic candidate. Having never held elective office before – though he was assistant attorney general for the civil rights division in the Clinton administration – it was easy for him to claim that he wouldn't be beholden to special interests or outmoded orthodoxies. Baby boomers, eager to make a permanent mark on the political landscape, also found the idea of electing the state's first black governor appealing.

What the Bay State got, however, is a pedestrian liberal governor who is remarkably quick to retreat in the face of pressure from the status quo.

Mr. Patrick's first cave-in came just weeks after he was elected, and before he was even sworn into office. On the campaign trail he promised to cut $735 million in wasteful spending from the state budget. But when the Democratic Senate president rebuked him for it, the governor-elect backpedalled. The Boston Globe summed it up this way: "Patrick backed off and said he didn't really mean it."

Another retreat came on a common sense issue that likely might have marked him as a true reformer had he made even a losing fight of it. Massachusetts is the only state that mandates that cops, not flagmen, direct traffic at road-construction sites. Earlier this spring, Mr. Patrick proposed loosening the requirement as a way to save taxpayers millions, but quickly recanted when the police union flooded the capitol with lobbyists. Within days, Mr. Patrick told listeners of his monthly radio show "the more I think about this, the less certain I am that we can fix this top down."

Education may be the one area where Mr. Patrick could have done the most to demonstrate that he is indeed a new man of the left. Fifteen years ago, the state enacted strict testing requirements for both teachers and students and passed reforms that encourage the creation of charter schools. The result: Massachusetts consistently places among the top performers on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Sticking by these bipartisan reforms – or even expanding them to help minority children in poor areas – would seem to be an easy call.

But to the delight of education unions, Mr. Patrick instead appears to be laying the groundwork to dismantle these reforms. He appointed antitesting zealot Ruth Kaplan to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, where she repaid his confidence recently by disparaging the college preparation emphasis of some charter schools. She said these schools set "some kids up for failure . . . Their families don't always know what's best for their children."

S. Paul Reville, chairman of the education board, has also drawn attention for his willingness to water down certification testing requirements for aspiring teachers. Under the guise of trying to overcome a teacher shortage, the administration wants to allow applicants who have failed the test three times to teach anyway. When pressed on the issue, Mr. Reville said publicly that the certification test "isn't necessarily the best venue for everybody to demonstrate their competency."

One characteristic of the Obama-Patrick brand of politics is the assertion that they can personally persuade disparate political leaders to reach a consensus. Mr. Patrick's biggest test of this claim came this year when he proposed bringing jobs to the state by allowing casino gambling in Massachusetts. The proposal angered an odd alliance of liberals and social conservatives because gambling is a highly regressive (if voluntary) tax. And it ended in defeat for the governor.

Rather than use the bully pulpit to create public pressure in favor of his proposal – Mr. Patrick told me in late March "I don't think that the way to advance most of our agenda is to do it through the media" – he lobbied lawmakers behind closed doors, using data that proved flimsy and skewed. In the end, his bill went down to a crushing defeat and, on the day of the legislature's vote, he skipped town to ink a $1.35 million book deal at a Manhattan publishing house.

What should trouble Mr. Obama the most is that the stirring rhetoric of Mr. Patrick's 2006 campaign, now being recycled by the Illinois senator (at times, word for word), is no longer connecting with Massachusetts voters. A mid-April poll found that 56% of the state's voters disapprove of the governor's performance. Even among left-leaning Democrats, more than four in 10 disapprove of Mr. Patrick.

Voters in Massachusetts had hoped Mr. Patrick's reformist promises and appealing style would mean a makeover for a tired political culture that has long since stopped producing satisfactory results. Instead, they, along with voters in southern New Hampshire and northern Rhode Island (which receive Boston news), now seem wary of the Obama-Patrick connection. These areas turned out heavily for Hillary Clinton in the presidential primaries and helped her carry all three states.

Mr. Obama has self-servingly said of himself and Mr. Patrick, "We are the change we've been waiting for." But what Mr. Patrick has demonstrated in office is that once the initial rush of making history has waned, these fresh faces seem to offer little change beyond the rhetoric."