Patrick flips from fighter to healer

Looking for an opening in presidential run, former governor takes a new tack

AS WE HAVE just learned, Deval Patrick’s initial posture as a candidate for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president is the diametrical opposite of his initial posture as a candidate for the 2006 Democratic nomination for governor of Massachusetts.

In early 2005, as Patrick was about to begin his first campaign, he was little-known in the state and entirely new to electoral politics. To get the press and Democratic opinion leaders to see his candidacy as a serious one, he would need to line up an initial base of support within the Democratic nominating universe, and to do it as quickly as possible. Where might he go to find it?

It was months after John Kerry’s loss to George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential contest. Many of the state’s progressives were dispirited. Kerry would have won, they felt, if only he had stood up for progressive values and progressive priorities and, on those terms, had taken the fight to Bush and Dick Cheney.

Enter Patrick. As he assured progressives across the state during the spring and summer and fall of 2005, the imperative for Democrats was to grow themselves a backbone and confront their conservative adversaries. They would not be able to do it at the presidential level until 2008, of course. At the state level, however, they could begin to fight the good fight right away, and do it by supporting him for the gubernatorial nomination and for the governorship itself.

For example, he pledged to them: If you help me to make me the governor, I will lead you and other Democrats into battle against Barbara Anderson and the state’s anti-tax army. This, recall, was only a little more than four years after she and her troops with Citizens for Limited Taxation had gained passage of a ballot question that cut the state income tax.

In those days, Patrick’s sunny declaration, “Yes we can,” still meant: “Yes, we can, if we fight.”

To be sure, Patrick’s fighting posture was always accompanied by a hopeful message of uplift that could appear conciliatory in tone. But he never conciliated when it came to Barbara Anderson: He proposed a $1.9 billion increase in taxes. For progressives, his call to arms was just what the therapist ordered, a fresh reason to get up in the morning. Early and intense, their support was what rocketed his candidacy into orbit.

In the years since, needless to say, Patrick’s call to grow backbone has been honored. Whatever you might think of Bernie Sander and Elizabeth Warren, you cannot deny that each has a political backbone. And, if you want to see a Democrat in the White House, you don’t have to be a supporter of either one in order to think that the party is better off with backbone than without one.

Now Patrick is once again trying to get a campaign off the ground. He is no longer new to electoral politics, of course. But he is little-known nationally among Democrats. To get the press and Democratic opinion leaders by the first of the year to see his candidacy as a serious one, he needs to line up an initial base of avid support within the Democratic presidential nominating universe. Where might he go to find it?

As Patrick’s initial posture in this new campaign tells us, he is no longer in the backbone business. Rather, he asserts, the present moment calls for his party to choose as its nominee a healer, someone who can heal any breaches within its own ranks and then go on to heal the breaches within the nation as a whole.

Here in the state in early 2005, there was a flood of early support for Patrick the fighter. We will soon learn whether there will be an equivalent flood of early support for Patrick the healer.

Meet the Author
Before he retired from teaching, Ralph Whitehead was on the journalism faculty at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He can be reached at