Deval Gives His All
Scene: A local office in a local office park. Sterile track lighting. Beige furniture. A hum of noise, emanating from attendees old and older. It’s crowded, and we’re in a room packed with more people than chairs. And at its center, an outlier, a stranger, someone who wants what he can’t have: their undivided attention.
To a certain extent, 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Deval Patrick is almost the perfect guest for the monthly meeting of the Polk County Democrats. A staunch progressive with a track record of success, Patrick’s talent shines from his ability to rhetorically distill his diverse experiences into examples, anecdotes, and stories. He answers both the questions that are asked as well as the questions that aren’t, which requires a tricky balance between pandering and patronizing. But he does it, and he makes it look easy too.
As an example, when asked to break down his business background working for controversial companies Bain Capital and AmeriQuest Loans, Patrick stood his ground. He used his record as a corporate lawyer to defend his past as a seasoned executive and staunch advocate of capitalism.
Pivoting to his record as the leader of the DOJ’s Civil Rights division, the former governor acknowledged that despite the success capitalism has brought for himself and the institutions where he’s worked, the number of people capitalism has left behind and subjected to unfairness is just as large. The transition between defending his weaknesses and amplifying his strengths was seamless, quick, and most importantly, intuitive.
Like all seasoned politicians, Patrick understands that what you’re saying is just as important as who you’re saying it to, and by transforming his experience to be a virtue, not a vice, he is able to integrate appeals to audience members of all types, whether it be the far left attendee who wants to know his civil rights record or the more tempered moderate who just wants to know if he’s going to lose the employee healthcare he and his family rely on. Patrick covers a lot of ground when he talks, and that dynamism certainly is represented in the confused faces often exhibited by audiences, albeit ones that smiles and nods usually accompany. But he’s also just good at reading the room and pacing himself and his content accordingly. Even casual viewers can tell this isn’t his first rodeo, and he has the capabilities, swagger, and suits to prove it.
In many ways, such performances engender comparisons to Barack Obama, and it’s not hard to see why the two are friends, nor why Patrick has amassed such a following among former Obama advisors. In the wake of the 2016 election, Obama famously stated that the way to win elections was to meet the people that voted in them and to take no support for granted. And that’s a lesson Patrick has clearly taken to heart as he begins to build out the basics of his ground game.
But all of this is only as good as to the extent that it actually appeals to Iowa voters. And at the event, they frankly seemed to have his back. Patrick fielded questions on everything from the endorsement of a renewable clean energy standard to the value of trade deals, especially as they relate to strong foreign policy. As part of the more moderate lane of the party, Patrick’s experience and confidence would likely appeal to a surveyor of the crowded field just sick of all the noise. Patrick does not represent generational change like Pete nor structural change like Warren. His voice doesn’t set the world on fire, his politics do not always lend themselves to revolution. He is, in some respects, boring. But to those overwhelmed by the propensity of options amidst a party leaning more to the left, maybe boring is enough. Maybe boring is exactly what they need.