Deval Patrick, in 2006, was the best political candidate I’ve ever seen, bar none.
Entering the race for governor with low name recognition and even less money, he captivated voters with his inspiring life story and profound empathy. Patrick was a poet on the campaign trail, imploring voters not simply to vote for him, but to see him as a vessel for their hopes and dreams of what government could be. That may sound corny, but the results were real. He marched into office with breathtaking ease.
Now Patrick seems to be poised to chase lightning in a bottle once again. According to multiple reports, he is planning a late entry into the presidential race and could announce as early as Thursday.
This is shocking, coming less than a year after he seemed to definitively close the door on a run. Then, he decried the brutality of the electoral process, implying that he didn’t want to put his family through such a burden. Now, it seems, he’s changed his mind.
But, then again, maybe not so shocking. Establishment Democrats are wringing their hands over the “electability” of the current candidates. Patrick isn’t the only candidate who’s convinced himself that the race remains wide open: Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg appeared set to get in, though he would probably skip many early primaries, given his late start.
Patrick is a great politician. But if he runs, I think he will be making a huge mistake.
For one thing, he is now up against an unforgiving timetable. He has missed the filing deadline in Alabama.
If he gets in this week, he will be just under the wire for running in New Hampshire.
But this is not just an issue of paperwork deadlines. Other candidates — like Senator Elizabeth Warren — have hired huge campaign staffs and have major operations in the early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. Patrick doesn’t even have a campaign manager.
Patrick’s late start means he can’t run the kind of grass-roots campaign Warren is running — the kind that carried him to victory in his races. There just isn’t enough time to build that. He will have to rely on big donors who aren’t happy with the current front-runners, and that is fraught with risk.
I spent much of Tuesday talking to former aides and longtime fans of Patrick. They all love him. No one came forward to endorse his latest venture.
“A big part of the magic of what he built in 2006 and 2010 was a statewide grass-roots campaign,” said Sydney Asbury, who managed his reelection campaign in 2010. “I fear with so little time there’s not going to be the ability to build that kind of campaign infrastructure. Having said that, I’ve learned never to underestimate Deval Patrick.”
Asbury has no plans to get involved in Patrick’s presidential run, and she’s not alone. Patrick’s old band of advisers scattered — after he decided not to run last year. Doug Rubin and John Walsh, who masterminded his election as governor, are now working for Tom Steyer and Ed Markey, respectively. Neither is likely to jump ship to join Patrick for America. Others are busy with their own consulting firms. Jesse Mermell is running for Congress. Nine years after his last race, there’s no putting the band back together.
And Patrick, for all his strengths, has other liabilities. His record in corporate America has come under close scrutiny since he left office, and the conclusions that have been reached won’t play well in this Democratic electorate. I just don’t see how his history with Ameriquest, Coca-Cola, and Bain Capital gets spun into a net positive. Imagine him on a debate stage with Warren explaining his opposition to a wealth tax. Will he sound like a voice of reason, or a man who’s sold his soul?
Look, I get why Patrick thinks he can do this. Lots of Democrats think former vice president Joe Biden simply doesn’t have it anymore. Patrick himself, on CBS last week, said Biden’s campaign “seems to be contracting, not expanding.” That sounds right. Warren wants to spend $20 trillion on a health care plan most Americans reject. Pete Buttigieg is the mayor of the fourth-biggest city in Indiana with no measurable African-American support. Bernie Sanders is a boutique candidate, deeply beloved by a cohort of voters too small to carry him to the nomination. It’s not crazy to think this race is up for grabs.
Patrick has made a career of ignoring the naysayers, of overcoming long odds. Indeed, it’s an essential element of his brand. He described his life, proudly, as “improbable” in the subtitle of his memoir. So, once again, the kid from the South Side of Chicago, who somehow made his way to Milton Academy, Harvard, the governor’s office, and the upper reaches of corporate America with cries that “This will never work” ringing in his ears, is off on another improbable journey.
Magic is notoriously hard to manufacture on demand. Whether this run proves inspirational or quixotic might be clear by St. Patrick’s Day.
Meanwhile, New Hampshire, here he comes.
Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or follow him on Twitter @adrian_walker.