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Deval Patrick Sees Opening for a Business-Friendly Liberal in the 2020 Presidential Race

November 14, 2019, 7:30 PM UTC

Former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick has released a video announcing his intention to join the crowded Democratic primary field. His decision, first reported by the New York Times, was made with a calculus similar to that of former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has filed paperwork in a few states to get his name on the ballot. 

Both Patrick and Bloomberg see a potential opening for a candidate who is progressive on social issues, but not as populist on economic issues as some of the current frontrunners like Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Patrick’s home state senator, Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). 

In his first interview as a candidate on CBS This Morning, Patrick made the case for a centrist approach, saying, “We need to reach to the best of America, not just the best of our party or the best of our supporters.”

Patrick’s resumé neatly illustrates this positioning. Before serving two terms as governor of the Bay State, Patrick worked for the NAACP and in the Justice Department during the Clinton Administration. After leaving office, he joined Bain Capital as a managing director. Bain, of course, is the private-investment firm founded by Utah senator, former Massachusetts governor, and former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. (Bain quickly removed Patrick’s biography from its website today.)

During the CBS interview, Patrick broke from Warren and Sanders, declaring that he does not support Medicare for All—“not in the terms we’ve been talking about it,” he said—though he would back a public option for health care. 

He also demurred on Warren’s signature proposal for a wealth tax, describing it as the right idea “directionally,” but says he would rather simplify the tax code for all taxpayers. “We want to encourage prosperity, we want to encourage people to aspire, just like I have, to lift themselves and their families out of poverty and to move into the middle class and beyond,” he said.

“I don’t think that wealth is the problem, I think greed is the problem,” he added. 

Patrick, who is said to be close with former President Barack Obama, assigned blame for income inequality to trickle-down economics. This is a subtle, but meaningful, bit of rhetoric, as it points the finger squarely at Republicans at a time when some members of the Democratic field have also leveled some criticism at the Obama administration for not going far enough to slow the staggering accumulation of wealth over the past 10 years by the top 1%.

The odds are always stacked against a candidate who jumps into a race late. Patrick will quickly need to woo donors, file the necessary paperwork to get on the ballot in various states, and begin to staff up even as most seasoned campaigners—including many of his own former aides—are already working on behalf of the 17 candidates already in the race. 

Still, it is not unprecedented for an 11th-hour bid to reshuffle a fractured primary field. Robert F. Kennedy, then a New York Senator, entered the 1968 presidential race in March of that year, winning four primaries including in California, where he was assassinated moments after delivering a victory speech.

Implicit in both the Patrick and Bloomberg candidacies is the sense that former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign is falling flat in some way. Patrick came close to making that criticism explicit when he said some candidates seem to be offering voters little more than “nostalgia” for pre-Trump politics at a time when Democrats are looking for change.

“The appetite for big ideas is big enough for the size of challenges,” Patrick said in his video.

Patrick’s move also comes as South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg surged ahead of the pack in a recent Iowa caucus poll. The former governor seemed to be borrowing from Buttigieg’s playbook when he spoke of the need for “humility” in policymaking, particularly with respect to Medicare for All.

Though it may be hard for Patrick to compete at this late date in Iowa, a caucus state where long-term, on-the-ground organizing is typically needed, he may believe a narrow path to the nomination is possible if he positions himself as more moderate than Sanders and Warren, but also more experienced, as a two-term governor, than Buttigieg. 

There is also the question of whether Buttigieg has strong enough appeal with voters of color to be the party’s standardbearer. As mayor, Buttigieg has grappled with thorny issues of race and social justice, following the police shooting this summer of a 54-year-old African-American man in South Bend. Maximizing turnout among black voters, in particular, is a priority for Democrats in 2020.

Whether Patrick can gain traction by positioning himself as a unifying force in the mold of Obama remains to be seen. Pollsters note that average Democratic voters have consistently said they are extremely happy with the field of candidates, and that any suggestion that there is a need for another, supposedly-better option is not supported by the data. 

Patrick’s resurgent interest in the job may best be explained by the notion that there’s something in the water in Massachusetts. The self-styled “cradle of liberty” and “hub of the universe” routinely churns out elected officials who look in the mirror and see a president smiling back at them, including not only Romney and Warren, but also John Kerry, Michael Dukakis, Bill Weld, Paul Tsongas, and Teddy Kennedy. 

Of course, it has been 60 years since a Massachusetts politician went the distance. He, too, was a liberal with a Keynesian streak though, politically, it was a much different time. For Deval Patrick, the test will be whether there are enough Democratic primary voters who want to see Trump out of the White House, but also want a moderate, business-oriented, Rotary-Club approach to what comes next.

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