James P. Freeman: Patrick's contradictory progressivism

  “The man who is swimming

against the stream knows the strength of it”

                        --from “The New Freedom,” Woodrow Wilson, 1913


“…if I walked on water,

the headline splash would be: ‘Patrick Can’t Swim’”

--from an address at  Harvard's Kennedy School, Deval Patrick, 2009


To a degree, every election is a referendum on activity since the preceding election. It is astonishing, therefore, given two terms, how little  Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick’s record--and the diminished potency of progressivism--played in the gubernatorial race.


No sober Democrat candidate channeled his style, but instead checkmated his substance (note the absence too of President Obama—Patrick’s political kindred spirit—on the national stage this past election). Association with Patrick was problematic; he is no longer a sensible reference point.


Thoughtful progressives must now consider Patrick a promiscuous progressive, a kind of flirtatious political poseur. Eight years of folly augur a sour legacy. And this may portend that faux popularity coupled with meager achievement will not translate into electoral victory for any future office.


The carnival of carnage under his administration would have dismantled the career of any other public servant in a state not controlled by a single party; in Massachusetts it’s a prerequisite for reelection, not recall.


Patrick acted with contempt for managing the more mundane, if not untidy, aspects of governance. He was a disengaged observer--not leader or manager--of a large, blameless bureaucracy and a corrupt system of institutional patronage.


He was all too willing, in the presence of this monolithic government, to act as its emotional proxy, not trailblazing reformer. He therefore substituted feeling for function. A favorite phrase, honed for maximum impact but of no consequential effect: “We must turn to one another not on one another.”


Justina Pelletier’s family turned to the courts after a lengthy battle with  the state Department of Children and Families (DCF), an agency of such severe managerial incompetence it should be shuttered. The Boston Globe reported last Feb. 2 that the death rate among children under DCF supervision averages 9-10 per year. Just two weeks later the governor praised the then-commissioner, as having “done a terrific job.” Since 2007, funding has been cut to DCF by over $100 million. Dysfunctional and overwhelmed, DCF would have been tasked to assist 1,000 unaccompanied refugee children under his plan this past summer.


The New England Compounding Center, the state-regulated specialty pharmacy, was responsible for 64 deaths and 750 infections nationwide. The Hinton State Laboratory Institute malfeasance may have tainted tens of thousands of criminal convictions. The non-functioning health Connector Web site affected hundreds of thousands of residents and untold cost in dollars and anxiety.


His eloquent, elegant speech, affirming soaring ideals, was a form of distraction from poor executive oversight. Much of it was mixed with rhetorical nonsense. A recent trip to Israel was an “innovation mission.” His attendance at the swearing in of Panama’s president last June was “a great honor for the commonwealth.” And “if we get clean energy right, the whole world will be our customer.”


A self-described “pro-growth progressive,” Patrick embodied the new incurable progressive urge: if you can’t fix it, expand it. Instead of simply addressing chronic structural and financial problems at the  Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority he sought extension of regional transportation networks.


Evidence of pro-growth progressivism: One in seven residents receives assistance from Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA); the number of households receiving Food Stamps increased 57 percent from 2009-2012. State expenditures have increased by 24 percent (over $1 billion a year) during the same period, far outpacing the rate of inflation. Unfunded pension liabilities increased from $11.7 billion in fiscal 2007 to over $21 billion in fiscal 2012. Since 2009 property taxes have increased by 25 percent. From 2009 to 2013 child poverty rates rose. (Rates are dropping nationally). The state unemployment rate, now 6percent, is still higher today than in January 2007, his first inaugural, when it was 4.6 percent.


If his form of progressivism is confusing it is also contradictory. Patrick called for a “progressive income tax” in 2010, supported a reduction in sales tax (the tax deemed too “regressive”) but signed into law a gasoline tax in 2013, which actually is regressive.


With spectacularly scant mention--by a largely fawning  media--during 2012’s senatorial and presidential elections, Patrick swiftly settled a lawsuit (brought by an advocacy group led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s daughter, represented by the law firm where Patrick's wife is a senior partner) against DTA, which claimed federal voter-registration violations. Nothing, suggests, however, he settled the massive waste, fraud and abuse that besieged the DTA (1,160 dead recipients of aid; 30,000 missing EBT cards).


President Wilson would now sue for trademark infringement on a brand he helped create over a century ago as progressivism’s godfather. He was a serious student of the philosophy, wrote extensively about it and embraced its tenants. Another forefather, former Gov. Michael Dukakis, at least talked about competence.


Patrick was never consubstantial with the commonwealth or the creed.

James P. Freeman is a Cape Cod-based writer.