Running hot and cold
It occurred to me during last night’s debate, when Charlie Baker was seething through yet another answer and Deval Patrick was thanking yet another candidate for essentially calling him a jerk, what this gubernatorial campaign is really about, and I’ll offer a quick hint: It’s not issues.
This race isn’t about proposals. It’s not about taxes or deficits or cutting fat or consolidating agencies or whether Massachusetts should adopt federal education testing or avoid it. No, what this race is about is temperament, and which candidate — Baker or Patrick — better captures the mood, hopes, wills, and fears of the voters charged with electing them.
Baker has positioned himself as impatient if not outright angry, and last night, to his credit, he appeared more passionate than petulant for the first time in this season of debates. He is the hot one, pounding the podium, pointing blame, stingy with credit, saying that virtually everything about Beacon Hill has to immediately change. He is the funnel meant to collect so much fury and dispense it as civic action.
Asked by Dorchester-bred moderator John King last night if there wasn’t something, anything, Patrick has done right in his nearly four years as governor, Baker fumed, “I wanted him to succeed,’’ then harangued Patrick for taking so long to back charter schools. Patrick should have responded that he was getting all choked up over their new-found closeness but that would require any of the candidates to have even the slightest bit of wit, which they most decidedly don’t. Good Friday Mass at the Vatican is less somber than these debates.
Patrick, though, has positioned himself as the calm and sturdy hand, the conciliator during unthinkably difficult times. He talks in a soothing tone about shared sacrifice that went into several billion in program cuts, and the collective values that required tax increases to maintain funding for health care and schools — investments in the future. If he’s depleting the rainy day fund to the tune of $2 billion, he shrugs (literally) and points out that it’s been raining.
“I see government as helping people, not kicking people to the curb when times are tight,’’ Patrick said midway through the debate, contrasting himself with his chief opponent.
Put another way, Baker is the doctor staring at the X-rays and declaring that it’s necessary to have massive surgery — immediately. Patrick is the one recommending more physical therapy, probably in a pool.
If Baker was a teacher, he’d be whacking kids across the knuckles with a wooden ruler; Patrick would gather students in a circle as part of an open classroom, with a few getting extra help and everyone getting a trophy the last day of school.
Baker is Red Bull; Patrick is coffee from a double-fisted mug. Baker is an Ultimate Fighter; Patrick captains a volleyball team especially adept at setting each other up. If Baker’s a traffic cop, he’s the one shining the light in the backseat and asking the driver to step out of the car; Patrick’s quietly gives out more warnings than tickets knowing that people will slow down.
Who wins? Who knows, but Baker benefits if people believe Patrick is in some way responsible for the epic national recession — or at least has bungled the state budget amidst it. Baker does well if people are angry more than frightened, itchy to purge, believing Massachusetts has fared worse than the country as a whole.
Patrick fares well if voters believe that a scalpel is a more effective instrument than an ax, and even better if they grasp just how severe and widespread this recession has been. Patrick does well if people, more anxious than angry, covet the steadiest possible course.
And so we continue for the final six weeks of this oddly must-see campaign — Baker’s heat verses Patrick’s cool, Baker’s abruptness against Patrick’s politeness, the hammer meets the net, the outcome defining who we are at an interesting and important moment in time.
Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.