Has grassroots democracy become an afterthought for Democrats?
Is America ready for “another” Black president? Some leading Democrats, including former President Obama, already have one in mind: former two-term Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick.
In fact, they’re busy working behind the scenes to promote Patrick’s candidacy, even though the would-be nominee has yet to indicate publicly whether he’s genuinely interested in the job and the election is still more than three years away.
Patrick is no household name among the Democratic rank-and-file. But he’s the darling of long-time Obama boosters and operatives like Valerie Jarrett, who played a powerful and controversial role in Obama’s recent administration. David Axelod, the former president’s one-time campaign manager, is also promoting Patrick’s candidacy.
But their effort to launch what amounts to a pre-emptive nominating “coup” is already producing a backlash from other Democrats still smarting from their party’s heavy-handed attempts to tilt the process in favor of Hillary Clinton in 2016 – with disastrous results.
“I want to see a wide-open a process where there are no front-runners,” Democratic strategist Jim Manley said in a recent interview with The Hill. “The idea that anyone is out there pushing for one person or another is a mistake.”
Jamal Simmons, a long-time Obama supporter, agrees. “There is little appetite in the party to settle on a candidate early,” he insists.
But the push by Obama’s inner circle to anoint Patrick also reflects the stark reality that the Democrats are playing defense now — with an aging leadership bench. Bernie Sanders still has a reservoir of support that he has moved to consolidate in recent months. But like Warren, the darling of party liberals, he’s not exactly a unifying figure. Former vice president Joe Biden clearly is, but his time has probably passed. And Clinton is widely considered to be near-radioactive after her embarrassing campaign last spring to reclaim the mantle of party standard-bearer.
All four are veteran Washington politicians approaching 70. Even Sanders and Warren, despite their fiery anti-Trump rhetoric, often sound tired and bitter on the stump. In a party that lost White millennial voters to Trump, 48-43 – its worst showing with this demographic in decades – there is a pressing need to find a candidate that looks and sounds like a forward-looking visionary.
Patrick, still young and vigorous at 61, does have his charms – and a strong policy record, but it’s one that might not energize mainstream voters. During his tenure as governor (2007-2015) he oversaw the implementation of the 2006 health care reform law enacted by his predecessor Mitt Romney, which became the blueprint for ObamaCare (a mixed legacy at best).
Patrick also raised the state sales tax as well as the minimum wage. And he increased funding to education and life sciences and won a federal Race to the Top education grant.
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His biggest liability? He’s an unabashed supporter of “amnesty” for the undocumented at a time when voter antipathy toward illegal immigration — and support for a crackdown on “sanctuary cities” — is clearly growing.
But Patrick’s no knee-jerk liberal, either. Like former president Bill Clinton (under whom he served in the 1990s) and others, including New Jersey Sen. Corey Booker, whom some consider presidential timber also, Patrick is a prominent member of Bain Capital, the corporate bail-out specialists whose ranks include Romney and other prominent Republicans. The firm is notorious for promoting firings and layoffs as a way of saving dying companies — which probably won’t sit well with Sanders or Warren supporters.
Patrick’s successful reign as a Black governor – the first in Massachusetts history – makes him a tried-and-tested chief executive (a concern that dogged Clinton’s candidacy despite her “impressive resume”). And there’s no denying that his race is a huge factor.
Patrick’s warm but muted embrace of African-American identity politics may be just the catalyst the Party needs to mobilize the thousands of disaffected Black voters who failed to show up for Clinton in 2016 — or for the spate of Democratic candidates in recent special elections, most notably in Blue-trending Georgia, where the GOP handed Democrats a stinging defeat.
The recent buzz over Patrick also illustrates just how popular and influential Obama remains among Democrats. The former president left office with his highest approval rating since 2009 and there remains a strong sense of euphoric recall about his tenure. And with Democratic leadership ranks so deeply divided and the party base so disenchanted, there’s an opening for Obama to ride to the rescue with a candidate whose presence and oratory so strongly evoke his own.
Despite some rumblings, it’s a trial balloon that may just float. With Obama at her side, Clinton in 2016 managed to survive a furious insurgent challenge while forcing the amiable Biden out of the race. With Obama eagerly cheering him on. Patrick could well surge to the forefront, too.
Arguably, Patrick’s business acumen and inclusionary message and social policies should appeal across party lines, just as they did in Massachusetts. But unless the economy tanks – right now, it’s surging – and a crippling scandal looms, it’s not clear that Trump, with all the natural advantages of incumbency, and despite his low favorability rating, is all that vulnerable to challenge.
Party leaders – including Obama, it seems – appear to have learned the wrong lesson from 2016. The problem wasn’t too much democracy — but not enough. Another jury-rig of the presidential nominating process can’t possibly help. And looking back to evoke the Obama mystique – without a resonant message to match Trump’s, especially among workers in the Rust Best — won’t produce a new governing coalition that can allow Democrats to win elections in Congress — and eventually the White House, too.