If the Phoenix were grading the recent performance of Governor Deval Patrick, we'd give him somewhere between a B and a B- for pure policy, but between a C- and D+ for political skill.
This discrepancy seems to stem from Patrick's personality as much as anything. He masters those political skills he cares about: insurgent party organizing, for example, or propelling major policy initiatives onto the public agenda. But he remains an amateur at other aspects of the political game — the ones he finds dull or unnecessary.
It's hard to escape the conclusion that Patrick feels he is above it all, too high-minded for the rough and tumble. Engaging with the press, those nattering nabobs of negativity, appears to be beneath him. Explaining himself in the face of criticism to his confused constituents or pesky legislators seems beside the point.
This is a mistake. Politics is about many things, but at its core it is about explaining and educating.
Perhaps the governor is disoriented, suffering from psychological bends triggered by his proximity to President Barack Obama's inner circle during the campaign and inauguration. Patrick also had a substantive place at the table where the federal stimulus program was assembled. There, Patrick was a prince among other political royalty. Back in Massachusetts, he is merely governor — chief executive for sure, but one who has to contend with the barons of Beacon Hill.
From that perspective, one might indeed find the complaints about, say, early Patrick supporter and state senator Marian Walsh's recent appointment to a high-paying, long-vacant position as "trivial" — as Patrick suggested at a recent press conference.
But trivial or not, responding to those complaints is part of the job. Patrick needs to get off his high horse and talk to the public about what he's doing, and why. When the media pushes, push back.
Patrick could start by explaining what he hopes to gain from the Walsh appointment. Insiders already understand that Walsh wanted a reward — and that Senate President Therese Murray wanted Walsh, a onetime rival, out of the way.
There is more to the Walsh affair than expediency, though. Her appointment to the number-two spot at the Health and Educational Facilities Authority — which straddles the spheres of public and private finance by organizing bond issues to support health care and education — involves a pivotal position that, especially in these times, when massive federal aid is coming to the state, could play an important role in rebuilding parts of Massachusetts's infrastructure.
At the moment, that authority is led by a reform-resistant holdover from the Romney administration who our former governor made sure Patrick cannot fire. Walsh's appointment is intended to de-Romneyize the authority.
Walsh is a capable public servant who could do a lot of good there. And now that she has said she will take $55,000 less than the $175,000 she was originally offered, a bit of the heat surrounding the situation has dissipated. That's for the better. All of Beacon Hill needs to be far more sensitive to compensation issues at a time when so many are losing their jobs — or are in danger of doing so.
Patrick's most recent press conference also helped to quiet the naysayers. Still, this is a "crisis" that should never have happened.
Another recent debacle that could have been avoided: the criticism surrounding Transportation Secretary Jim Aloisi. We suspect that Patrick is right: only a politically savvy policy operative like Aloisi can wangle the commonwealth's transportation behemoth into submission. But we'd like to hear Patrick say it.
For all the times lately that Patrick has spent backtracking on his plans, we often can't tell when he's retreating from good but politically problematic ideas, and when he's recognized a boneheaded error.
His recent attempt to give huge raises for two island sheriffs sure looked like a howler to the Phoenix, but we have no idea whether Patrick even realizes the gaffe. On the other hand, we think the elimination of the Group Insurance Commission's appeals board really might be justified under the new, competitive auto-insurance system. And while this paper's reaction to the sugar and soft-drink tax proposal was that it was a "Nanny State" idea disguised as tax policy, if it was good enough to put forward, it should have been good enough to defend.
That nasty old warden in the Paul Newman movie Cool Hand Luke got it about right: "What we've got here is a failure to communicate."
There are important issues on the agenda, not the least of which is getting the legislature to pass serious ethics and pension reforms. Patrick cannot let his own lassitude and petulance keep tripping him up. It is time for the governor to break out. Stop presiding and start leading. It's a lesson he should have learned already from watching his close friend President Obama.