The Magazine

Coupe Deval

The unhappy first year in office of Barack Obama's friend and oratorical model.

Mar 3, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 24 • By DEAN BARNETT
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Early last week, the presidential campaign was rocked by the "bombshell" that Barack Obama had borrowed certain rhetorical flourishes from Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick's 2006 gubernatorial campaign. The revelations were not universally regarded as shocking.

Anyone who was aware of the existence of Deval Patrick prior to the publication of this story could see the similarities between the Obama and Patrick campaigns. Both men ran campaigns based on hope. Both ostentatiously sought out a style that would transcend politics as usual. They shared a strategist, David Axelrod, who had penned vacuously uplifting prose for John Edwards long before Edwards became an angry populist trapped in a 28,000-square-foot mansion.

The Patrick campaign appeared to provide something of a blueprint for Obama. Patrick didn't start his race for governor with the advantage of celebrity that Obama brought to the presidential race. Nevertheless, his message of hope resonated, and he easily defeated formidable opponents in both the Democratic primary and the general election.

If anything--and you may find this difficult to believe--the Patrick campaign was less substantive than the Obama campaign. In 2006, Massachusetts's overwhelmingly Democratic legislature had passed Mitt Romney's universal health care law. The economy was good. And yet Patrick won the race relying on hollow rhetoric like, "I want you to understand, I am not asking anybody to take a chance on me. I'm asking you to take a chance on your own aspirations."

Not surprisingly, given its "double threat" status of being both vague and vapid, the line about the aspirations is one of the chestnuts that Obama has recycled during the presidential race. In November 2007, USA Today quoted Obama as saying, "But you see, I am not asking anyone to take a chance on me. I am asking you to take a chance on your own aspirations."

The irony of both Obama and Patrick's using that particular line is that when a candidate runs a campaign like Patrick's in '06 and Obama's today, voters who give them a victory are taking a very big chance. Such candidates base their campaigns not on their policy promises (such as the Patrick campaign's still unkept vow to get 1,000 more police officers on the Commonwealth's mean streets), but on their personalities and leadership. If the voters ratify such a campaign, they give the candidate the kind of blank check that a victor who ran on a less frothy agenda could only dream of.

Many Americans may wonder what's happened to Patrick since he arrived at Boston's golden-domed state house with a mandate to be hopeful and aspirational. It turns out the governor has spent his first year in office all dressed up with no place to govern.

Given the narcissistic nature of the politics of hope, it's unsurprising that much of the Patrick administration has revolved around the whimsy and caprice of Deval Patrick himself. Patrick came to office seeming determined to glorify himself with unprece-dented gubernatorial flights of ego. One of his initial executive decisions was to lease a brand new Cadillac in which he would be chauffeured around the state--at taxpayer expense, even though Patrick and his wife are extremely wealthy.

Mitt Romney had used the same Ford Crown Victoria for his entire four years in office. Patrick deemed Romney's ride insufficiently opulent, and yet defended leasing the much more expensive Caddy by insisting that Ford had discontinued the Crown Victoria. Only Ford hadn't discontinued the Crown Vic, much to the relief of police forces everywhere.

This escapade earned Patrick the nickname "Coupe Deval" from hostiles in the local media. In an attempt to make the matter go away, Patrick decided weeks after the story broke that he would pay the state the $543-a- month difference between the pedestrian Crown Vic and the more elegant Caddy. He announced his decision with characteristic politics-of-hope self-aggrandizement, saying, "I cannot in good conscience ask [state] agencies to make those [fiscal] choices without being willing to make them myself."

Patrick was just getting warmed up. He hired a full-time scheduler for his wife, a partner at one of Boston's biggest law firms. The scheduler who got the decidedly light task of scheduling first lady duties for a woman with an all-consuming full-time job was the female half of the husband and wife team who had coordinated Patrick's campaign fundraising. The Commonwealth agreed to pay her $72,000 a year for her services. Patrick's wife was the first Massachusetts first lady since Kitty Dukakis to rate her own scheduler.

Patrick also showed the world that he didn't crave creature comforts only on the road. The Boston Globe reported on his ambitious redesign of the governor's office back in February: