Holmes: Will Patrick's army march to Obama's tune?

Rick Holmes

Deval Patrick rallied the troops on Boston Common this week, hoping he could marshal the magic that elected him governor last year in support of his friend and ally, Barack Obama. But Patrick's army isn't what it used to be and Governor Patrick doesn't have the magic candidate Patrick had.

Endorsing Obama wasn't an easy decision for Patrick. Bill Clinton had named him to a top job in the Justice Department, and Patrick has known Hillary since before she moved into the White House. At this stage in the campaign, it usually isn't a good idea to side against the front-runner, and some of his advisers had reportedly discouraged him from taking sides.

But Patrick and Obama go way back as well. Patrick helped Obama in his campaigns for state senate and U.S. Senate, and Obama returned the favor last year. Both traveled through South Chicago and Harvard Law on their way to the top.

They also share a political style that stresses optimism and idealism. They want to be seen as above the fray, as post-boomer politicians who resist the attack politics of the Clinton/Gingrich years. They draw their power from the grassroots and use it to summon voters to the noble cause of lifting up their government and their neighbors.

Introducing Obama at a rally on Boston Common Tuesday, Patrick sounded those chords again, contrasting Obama with Clinton without mentioning her name.

"For once, I want a campaign that's not about the candidate but about us," Patrick said. "Not about a resume, but about character. Not about connections or convenience, but about conviction. Not about smearing the competition, but about lifting us all up. Not about the right and the left, but about right and wrong. Not about yesterday, but about tomorrow.

"I want a president who understands that," Patrick said. "That's why I am with Barack Obama."

That kind of talk impressed a lot of Massachusetts voters in 2006, when Patrick went from virtual unknown to lopsided victories in both the primary and the general election. But what really put him over the top was a grassroots organization of thousands of volunteers that shocked the Bay State's seasoned political pros.

That's why Obama courted Patrick so aggressively. If that army could be enlisted to invade New Hampshire, where independent-minded primary voters make up their minds late and delight in confounding the pundits, Obama could derail Hillary's Inevitability Express.

Maybe so, and the large crowd on the Common - Obama's people estimated it at 9,500, which is surely more than any other presidential candidate could have mustered - must have been encouraging. Obama has drawn the largest, most enthusiastic crowds since launching his campaign.

But whether Patrick can offer his friend much beyond an e-mail list is open to debate.

For one thing, grassroots volunteers aren't Patrick's to give. Compared to the armies of patronage or self-interest used by conventional politicians, the Netroots gang doesn't follow orders.

Patrick made a point of keeping his political organization active after last year's election, but he has yet to put them to work. Instead of governing as an outsider, he has tried to work with the insiders on Beacon Hill - and has precious little to show for it.

Nearly every one of Patrick's major initiatives - new revenue sources for cities and towns, new law enforcement programs, closing corporate tax loopholes, investing in life sciences, legalizing casino gambling - has been either squelched or stalled by the Legislature.

The imperious Democrats who run the Legislature have spent the last 16 years ignoring Republican governors and seem content to ignore a Democrat as well. Patrick has had trouble even finding influential lawmakers to sponsor his bills.

Patrick has started to complain more loudly about the pace of the legislative process, but he has yet to call on his grassroots network for a show of support. Until he can figure out a way to work either with or around Beacon Hill bosses like House Speaker Sal DiMasi, his campaign poetry will ring hollow.

"You don't want someone who can play the game in Washington," Obama told the cheering crowd on Boston Common. "You want someone who will put an end to the game-playing."

But those who watched Patrick closely over the last year heard that line with new ears. They are still looking for signs that Patrick knows how to play the game on Beacon Hill.

Grassroots support wasn't Patrick's only advantage last year. He was also lucky in his opponents. Tom Reilly's support was always an inch deep, and even he admitted soon after launching his campaign that he isn't very good at politics. Chris Gabrieli was respected by many Democratic insiders, but he had more wallet than base. After dispatching them in the primary, all Patrick had to beat was Kerry Healey, a Republican novice who never had much chance.

Obama isn't nearly so lucky. Clinton is a tough competitor and her organization is second to none. National campaigns are waged on TV, not in large rallies, and to the media, it's all about Hillary.

On the Common, as Obama was lurching from some uninspired improvisation into a pretty inspirational stump speech, an obnoxious TV reporter - that may be redundant - near me positioned himself between camera and stage to deliver a remote report. The light went on and he said into his mic, "The governor's endorsement of Obama comes as the senator trails Hillary Clinton in national polls by more than 20 points."

Something must have gone wrong, so he said it again. Then he said it again. Then again. "The governor's endorsement of Obama comes..."

The Obama backers around him grumbled. They probably grumbled again later when they saw that local TV stations gave no more than a minute or two to the Patrick/Obama story, tucked in after they had filled the first half of the newscast with fluff about a baseball game still 24 hours away. Every report I saw included a reference to Clinton's commanding lead.

Can Obama's "audacity of hope" break through the fog put out by a pundit class obsessed with polls? Can door-knockers in New Hampshire surprise the insulated talking heads in Washington like Patrick's grassroots army surprised the Beacon Hill crowd a year ago? Can Obama resist the conventional wisdom that says he has to start attacking Hillary? Can he, like Patrick, ride the high road all the way to victory?

I don't know. But New Hampshire has a long history of upsetting front-runners. Those who prefer a campaign to a coronation have to hope for some surprise when the pundits finally let the voters speak.

Rick Holmes is opinion editor for the MetroWest (Mass.) Daily News. He can be reached by email at rholmes@cnc.com.