A HIGH HORSE is not a particularly appealing mode of political transport. Nor a particularly effective one.
And yet, that’s been Governor Patrick’s preferred ride these last few months. The governor has managed to sour his relationship with the legislative leadership and bring the Senate president and House speaker into an alliance against him, even while blaming the media for tensions born of his own moralistic manner.
When things aren’t going well for him, Patrick too often reacts in a peevish, self-righteous way that conveys the distinct impression that he considers himself the only one who is motivated by principle or acting courageously. He sometimes catches himself and modulates his rhetoric or leavens his scolding with a smile, but not before the damage is done.
That persona has been on full display in recent weeks. Asked last week about the Legislature’s seeming determination to push forward with a transportation bill that was less than he hoped for and, in his view, not securely enough funded, Patrick offered this high-handed reply:
“Like I said, they can do whatever they want, and have. And they can do it with or without hearings, with or without data, with or without facts. We’ve seen that too.”
The governor next signaled his exasperation with legislation directing him to apply formally and in writing for a waiver from an aspect of Obamacare that threatens to prove disruptive to small businesses.
“I’m so done with that,” Patrick said, before adding that “if they want me to send a formal letter to confirm the conversation I have already had with the secretary of HHS, I am happy to do that,” his impatient tone making it clear he thought pursuing a more formal request was a waste of time.
The day after sending those messages, Patrick went on WGBH radio and faulted the press for personalizing Beacon Hill’s policy disagreements. Queried about a Globe story reporting that he had not met with legislative leaders in three weeks, Patrick said he had spoken with the speaker earlier that day.
“I think he is feeling as perplexed by the personalization of this by some in the media as I am, and as I think the Senate president has felt in the past,” he said.
This week, when a reporter prefaced a question by noting legislative leaders said they had the votes to override him if he vetoed the transportation bill, Patrick interrupted with a response that started sharply, but whose tetchy tone was then tempered some by a comedic pronunciation.
“And what do you want me to do? Laaaay down?” he said. “I’m not going to do that. This is a principled difference. You ought to know by now . . . I am going to stand on my principles.”
That moralistic modus operandi is all the more perplexing because, when dismounted from his self-righteous steed, Patrick counts charm and likability as potent assets. But he’s shown little of either since surprising the political world with his sweeping proposals to upgrade the state’s transportation system, overhaul the tax code, and hike the income tax.
He soon rankled legislative leaders by calling on them to show some “political courage” on his tax proposal. Speaker Robert DeLeo in particular is said to have bridled at that, given that he pushed a $1 billion tax hike through the House just a few months into his speakership in 2009.
Unlike some of his power-hungry predecessors, DeLeo is an affable, mild-mannered guy who could be a valuable Patrick ally. Instead, the speaker has now made common cause with Senate President Therese Murray, who is more prone to feel slighted and thus more difficult to deal with.
“No one can manage Terry Murray, but he has really mismanaged his relationship with DeLeo,” says one person who knows both legislative leaders well.
Now, it’s true that, as key figures have departed, Patrick’s senior staff has gotten younger and less savvy. But that’s not an excuse. And given that a team becomes ever weaker as a governor’s term winds down, that’s not about to change.
Which means the governor himself needs to change. Politics is the art of persuasion — and Deval Patrick on his high horse is some leagues removed from a persuasive figure.