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The Case for Deval Patrick

Democrats finally get their White Knight candidate.
November 14, 2019
The Case for Deval Patrick
Last-mover advantage? (JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images)

True story: Deval Patrick would be sitting in the White House right now if he’d run for president in 2016.

Three Democratic heavyweights took long looks at challenging Hillary Clinton in 2016: Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Deval Patrick. All three passed on the race, for various reasons. Biden, because President Obama quietly pushed him not to run. Warren, because she thought there was only room for one feminist hero in the race. And Patrick, because . . . well, it was never quite clear why he passed.

When this trio opted out, Bernie Sanders got in and quickly discovered that pretty much half of the Democratic party was so averse to Hillary Clinton that they were willing to vote for a socialist from Vermont who wasn’t even a Democrat.

Who knew?

The explanation for nearly every significant defeat in military history can be summed up as: Too late. The same is often true of politics.

Deval Patrick’s moment to run was 2016, but he did not realize it at the time. In 2018, he again considered running for president, but decided against it because his wife had recently been diagnosed with cancer.

Today, 12 weeks before the Iowa caucuses, Patrick has decided to run.

Here are some reasons to be bullish on his prospects:

  • Patrick has real political chops—he’s the only Democrat to be elected governor in Massachusetts in almost 30 years.
  • Seriously. That’s a real thing.
  • His youth provides a stark contrast with the top tier of the Democratic field.
  • He’s 63.
  • People seem to think that African American voters have not settled on a candidate and are totally up for grabs.
  • Patrick is personally close to Obama and David Axelrod, and presumably he would not have changed his mind about running if both of them thought it was an awful, terrible idea.

That’s it. That’s the list.

I’m kidding, but only sort of. Had Deval Patrick gotten into the race early, it’s possible that he’d be in the top tier of candidates. It’s entirely possible, actually, that had Patrick decided to run six months ago, Biden would have stayed on the sidelines.

But he didn’t, so we are where we are. And where we are is this:

Patrick will miss Iowa entirely. He’ll be in New Hampshire, where there will be three nearly native sons/daughters running. If he doesn’t finish in the top three there, it’s a problem. And then he has to—absolutely, positively, has to—win South Carolina.

And while this may not be impossible, I will remind you that Deval Patrick is the former governor of Massachusetts, who was educated at the Milton Academy, Harvard, and Harvard Law and who most recently worked at Bain Capital.

Yes, that Bain Capital.

Also, his national name ID more or less starts from zero.

Good luck.

So Patrick has to move from a standing start with organization and fundraising. The value of those goods can be overstated.

Patrick’s real hurdle is: Why is he running? Certainly his announcement video doesn’t shed any light on this question. There’s no message in it beyond general electoral cliches. (And the fact that as of this writing it’s been viewed by just 18,000 people does not suggest a lot of pent-up demand.)

Deval Patrick Announcement Video

And the answer has to be more than just because he thinks African American voters are up for grabs. Though I suspect that a big part of what’s going on is that people assume that, since Joe Biden is white, his support among African-American voters must be tenuous.

It’s not clear why that is. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker have spent the better part of a year trying to pry African-American voters away from Joe Biden. It hasn’t worked because—and everyone keeps missing this point—African-American voters like Biden. In fact, just about everyone likes Biden outside of the precincts of Fox News and Woke Twitter. That’s why he’s led national polls from wire to wire and why he’s crushing the incumbent president by historic margins in general election match-up polling.

Likability matters. A lot.

And Biden has married his likability to a widely known political brand and launched them with a clear and unambiguous vision for his presidency which is, almost literally, Make America Great Again.

What is Patrick’s message going to be? Why does he think Democrats should vote for him? It will probably have to be more than I’m best friends with Barack. Because Barack’s business partner is already in the race and doing very well.

It’s telling that in all of the discussion about Patrick, no one even seems to know whether he’ll be closer to Sanders or Hickenlooper on matters of policy and ideology.

We live in a world in which anything can happen—a butterfly can flap its wings in Beijing and in Central Park you get rain instead of sunshine.

But the most-likely scenarios for Deval Patrick’s entry into the race are, in descending order of probability:

(1) He flashes and fades quickly, like Fred Thompson in 2008 or Rick Perry in 2012, and never makes a significant impact in actual primary voting.

(2) He siphons off enough voters in New Hampshire to either ruin some other candidate’s day or to render the result such a muddle that there is no clear winner and any momentum from Iowa is blunted in the Granite State.

(3) He builds enough support to do well in South Carolina, which creates enough of a splintering that the Democratic race becomes a long slog to the convention—with the real possibility of no candidate amassing enough delegates for a first-ballot nomination.

(4) He gives an impressive performance in debates, doesn’t create a viable coalition, and becomes an attractive vice presidential pick for the eventual nominee.

(5) He catches fire in New Hampshire, consolidates African Americans and one other group (either liberals or moderates) in South Carolina, and then becomes the clear Goldilocks consensus choice on Super Tuesday.

I view that last scenario as the least likely of the five, not because I’m dismissive of Patrick’s gifts, but because I think the race is more locked-in than it looks.

If you’re a progressive, you have two options who are giving you everything you ever could have wanted—and more: A senator from Massachusetts who wants to remake America’s historical compact with the free market and a socialist from Vermont who literally honeymooned in the USSR.

If you’re looking for a pragmatic, fresh face, you’ve got the freshest-faced serious candidate in modern history: A 37-year-old mayor from a small midwestern city.

If you’re an Obama Democrat who yearns for a return to normalcy because you think American politics has gone off the rails, you have Obama’s vice president: a steady hand and fixture in national politics for two generations.

And if you’re an older, moderate Democrat who doesn’t truck with all of that PC-nonsense you see on Twitter, you’ve got that guy, too.

There’s no Democratic constituency right now who is obviously being underserved.

In 2016, I would have made Deval Patrick the favorite to win the Democratic nomination. I might have made him the favorite for this cycle in February of 2019.

But in mid-November? It’s probably too late.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.