Time to break a sweat

Massachusetts may be beyond reform, but couldn’t Governor Patrick try a little harder?
By EDITORIAL  |  April 16, 2008

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Deval Patrick won the governor’s office by raising expectations that he could quickly make a difference on Beacon Hill. That’s a tall order. Governors may reign in the Commonwealth, but the legislature rules. Even more important, the legislature makes the rules. That reality has become painfully clear to Governor Patrick in the first 15 months of his 48-month term.

Only the wildly idealistic optimists — and there were many who rallied to the governor’s campaign rhetoric — could have expected Patrick to revolutionize Massachusetts in this short a span of time. Idealism, of course, is in relatively short supply up on Beacon Hill. And optimism is a similarly precious commodity.

Patrick’s problem — and anyone who doubts he has a problem should look at his deeply declining approval ratings — is that, having cornered the limited market for idealistic opportunism, and then expanded it, he is now being judged by its cruel utopian standards. (Barack Obama, take note.)

If Patrick were ever to drop his guard for a moment — and charming though Patrick is, he appears to be increasingly guarded — he might admit something like this: politics is a lot tougher than government (which is tough enough), and running a state is a lot trickier than being a corporate executive and a board member.

So how’s Patrick doing? The assessment, not surprisingly, is mixed.

Patrick has genuinely improved many facets of state government, and has laid the groundwork for more important changes.

He has also misspent much effort by introducing overly ambitious and wide-ranging proposals that he and his staff were ill-equipped to usher through the dense political thickets.

Patrick and his team came out of the gate in January 2007 with an aggressive first budget, seeking in one stroke not only to fulfill a variety of campaign promises (new cops, property-tax relief, expanded early education, increased immunization programs), but also to overhaul state government (earmark elimination, restructured departments, consolidated budget items). The former were unrealistic given the huge budget shortfall; the latter sought to emasculate the very legislature whose votes were needed to pass that budget.

This budget, far more than the drapes, the Cadillac, and even his inexplicable call to Citigroup executive and former US Treasury secretary Robert Rubin on behalf of mortgage lender Ameriquest (on whose board Patrick had served) revealed a tin-eared political neophyte with much to learn. (The flap over his recent book deal, too, calls into question how much he’s learned — or at least retained.) And it was followed, even as the legislature was still working on that first budget, by a seemingly endless series of grand proposals, including a corporate-tax package, local-options taxes, life-sciences investment, a package of environmental and energy initiatives, commuter-rail extension, post-release public-safety reform, and, of course, the casino plan.

Many, if not all, are admirable ideas, but very few of them have come to fruition.

And while Patrick has retooled some of his staff and his strategies, he has not stepped back on any of these proposals. He continues to expend energy and political capital on them, making it hard for him to respond to the needs of the changing landscape.

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