Opinion

How Don Berwick changed the Democratic primary

Democratic candidate for Governor Don Berwick.
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
Democratic candidate for Governor Don Berwick.

Things are looking bleak for Don Berwick. But even if he trails badly on election night, you have to admit: This lackluster Democratic primary wouldn’t have been the same without him. The only doctor in the race has added some needed fiber to the Democratic diet during this year’s gubernatorial campaign. His single-payer health proposal has forced his opponents to engage in a substantive discussion of health care costs, and in particular has nudged Treasurer Steve Grossman into promising to consider single-payer if he’s elected.

Berwick has also shown a refreshing willingness to take bold stands. And while his support for single-payer and opposition to casinos give him a lefty tinge, many of his positions are harder to situate on the conventional left-right axis. For instance, he favors bringing in more hydropower, an idea many environmentalists loathe and that other Democratic candidates have tiptoed around.

So why hasn’t he gained traction? The longtime health care guru, who recently served as President Obama’s Medicare chief, went into the primary with an extensive resume but no experience in electoral politics, a shortcoming that clearly hurt him. Unlike Deval Patrick or Elizabeth Warren, he didn’t discover a natural flair for campaigning.

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The irony is that even while he has failed to break through against Grossman and Attorney General Martha Coakley, Berwick might match up best against likely Republican nominee Charlie Baker, the former health-insurance executive whose hefty salary at Harvard Pilgrim would make him Berwick’s poster boy for the waste in the current insurance system. And while Baker’s big selling point is his command of the nuances of state government, Berwick would be hard to out-nerd.

Of course, Berwick could still catch fire in the final days. His new ad, which portrays Grossman and Coakley as squabbling children, seems to be an effort to whip up voter disgust at the campaigns of the two front-runners. But it’s a long shot, especially since the ad could just as well make him appear mean-spirited. Still, going negative and zeroing in on Coakley’s and Grossman’s tepid campaigns might be the only way Berwick’s ad-makers can resuscitate their patient now.

Alan Wirzbicki can be reached at alan.wirzbicki@globe.com.