Governor Deval Patrick may be the incumbent, but he enters the race for the most thankless statewide job in Massachusetts as an underdog.
An electoral novice when he set his sights on the chief executive's chair, Patrick proved to be a shark of an organizer and a pro on the campaign trail.
Those skills, however, did not translate well to the State House. Beacon Hill is a cloister of special interests. It is populated by big egos and delicate ids.
No slouch himself in the ego department, Patrick assumed office as a self-styled outsider with a reformer's zeal for transforming the tone of politics and a populist's commitment to changing the priorities of the back rooms.
Reform is a dirty word at the State House. And despite the lip service legislators pay to such phrases as "the will of the people," Beacon Hill (like Washington) is deeply suspicious of the populist impulse. Rewriting the equations of power is just too uncomfortable, too risky, too radical in an environment that favors going along in order to get along. The people may vote, but in the final analysis they are a bit of a nuisance, at times even a pain — unless they are willing to make campaign contributions.
Big-time change did not come to Massachusetts with Patrick's election, as promised. But with the economy still in a state of shock, the bad-old days look not too bad at all.
Patrick's popularity was in decline even before the nation began flirting with economic Armageddon. That is a complicated story, and political writer David S. Bernstein analyzes it well on page 10 of this issue. As Bernstein points out, Patrick's problems are due less to conception than execution. The result, however, has been widespread public disappointment, if not disapproval.
Despite Patrick's own political missteps and Beacon Hill's inherent perversity, the governor has accomplished far more than most of the press, the public, his rivals, and even some of his allies realize — or are willing to admit.
In the realm of pure policy, the Patrick administration has been more successful in its tenure than President Barack Obama has been in his. The sweeping education-reform act Patrick shepherded through the legislature is a real accomplishment. It is a practical investment in the future that gives communities and school administrators most of the tools they need to repair an underperforming educational system.
If Patrick accomplished little else, this would be a landmark. And it is extremely doubtful that the legislature would have had the imagination, the will, or the courage to do so without the governor's initiative.
After 16 years of Republican neglect, there are also signs of renewed vigor within the public-university system. In very cold terms, Patrick has achieved something in education that Obama still dreams about with health care.
The fact that the commonwealth has earned and maintained an AA bond rating may sound like boring stuff, but that means the cost of the debt the taxpayers carry is considerably cheaper than it might be.