Friday, December 14, 2007
Together, how far?
We are coming up upon a milestone for Deval Patrick. In just a few weeks we'll have had a full year of him in office, a year with which we might assess the man and this administration that was supposed to challenge the status quo and usher in a new era in engaged citizenship, this administration that really had billed itself as a revolution about to happen.
First, I should point out that I am, by no means, an impartial judge. I might be something of an apologist (but then again I could just as well be a 'voter scorned'!) I worked for Deval Patrick in every way I could with whatever time I could spare from the first time I heard him speak, at a Democratic issues convention in 2005. Right from the start, the thing that so impressed me about Deval Patrick was his ability to speak from a position principled conviction without resort to a divisive and dismissive politics. He was unapologetic and unequivocating in his positions on marriage rights, the death penalty and immigration. But he also saw these political battle lines as things to move beyond. He often reminded us that there were larger challenges we could all work together to face. Education, housing, economic growth, these were places where thoughtful policy could serve us far better than political posturing. Deval Patrick spoke of government as a mechanism for the kind of hope that doesn't sit back and wish for things, but rather the kind that sets about the task of making things happen.
"Yeah, he gives a good speech." I heard that a lot over the course of the campaign, through the primary and general election. There was always the implied question: how would this rhetoric translate into governance? And as this past year has unfolded the question has come up again. Was "Together We Can" only another slogan? What of the grassroots progressive movement that supposedly made Deval Patrick's campaign about a lot more than Deval Patrick?
The first months of the administration were marked with confronting The Mitt Romney Magical Disappearing Budget Surplus (translate: deficit) and the awkward handling of Cadillac cars and interior decor. When the budget did come through many who thought they had a new champion on Beacon Hill found themselves disappointed and disgruntled. Why didn't Patrick come up with the money? There was not one loaf or fish.
What happened to this new sense of priorities? And what is all this about closing tax loopholes? Sal DiMasi says that's just more taxes!
Then the governor talked about expanding access to affordable, even free, secondary education in our state, and senate and house leaders practically smirked at him. We were told Deval Patrick was on a learning curve. Yeah, he'd learn.
Perhaps this has been a year about learning.
I saw the Governor give another great speech just recently. It was on Boston Common and he was offering his endorsement to Barack Obama for President. Patrick was once again speaking to that part of me that is still so damned hungry, the part that wants our politics, or a better term —our civic life, to be something noble again. He spoke to the idea of no longer worrying which party had the upper hand, or even the better policy. He spoke of bringing the debate to a new place (or perhaps one that is very very old), where the exchange of ideas serves the purpose of refining those ideas, where the object of debate isn't one side's victory over another, but rather a genuine consensus as to the common good.
Amen, I said to myself.
I left that gathering feeling just a little more hopeful, like there was work to be done and that I could play a part in doing it. It had been a while since I felt that way.
It struck me just a few days later. I don't know if this is an accusation or a confession. Is it Deval Patrick or me? —as Marc Antony said to Brutus, "the stars" or "ourselves"? But what is it that inspires in the electoral process, on the campaign trail, that is yet to inspire in the same way, now that the task of better government is seemingly at hand for Deval Patrick?
It might be that the actual work of government, the arduous negotiation and compromise just isn't set up to entertain the way a good ole' political horse race is. It might be that he is immersed in the uninspired, sleeves rolled up aspects of law making that Otto von Bismark once compared to sausage making (and nobody wants to watch that!)
Could it be that those disparaging remarks about Deval Patrick's inspiring rhetoric were slightly true?
Could be, but I'd like to think not. Or at least I'd like to argue that the inspiring rhetoric was also slightly true.
It could be that just as the governor has been on "something of a learning curve," those of us spectating and grading his performance have had some acclimating to do as well. This new model of government we talked about during the campaign was never something we expected Deval Patrick to somehow do for us. "Together we..." oh, you know!
This new government comes of what we expect from elected officials, but also of what we expect from our media, how we conduct the public discourse, it comes of what we expect from ourselves.
When the governor speaks of expanded access to higher education and legislative leaders dismiss this out of hand, it isn't Deval Patrick who is done a disservice. When proposals for tax reform and improved state revenues disappear into the legislature's supposed study of them, it isn't Deval Patrick alone who is left with crumbling infrastructure and over-strapped underfunded communities. It goes something like this: Together, we are.
The thing that most impressed me about Deval Patrick when he was running for office was his ability to disagree with grace. I saw it several times in the formal debates and even once or twice at rallies and public forums. He could welcome an idea that was not his own. He could speak to it, yes, but he could also listen. He could say what he had to say, even in a room that wasn't so pleased to hear it. He had that faith in the better debate.
I don't mean to make him out as a saint. Not hardly. I am perturbed with a couple of his decisions this past year myself. But I actually believe Deval Patrick was elected governor because we saw a government of better possibility, of that open, honest and earnest debate among an engaged citizenry. It was in ourselves that we saw that better possibility.
Deval Patrick might do a better job next year. I'd be willing to bet he's learned a thing or two politically, even if he's had to learn them the hard way. There may even be a couple of things he forgot that he needs to remember. But I think that's true of all of us.