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Joan Vennochi

Turning hope into action

Email|Print| Text size + By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / February 21, 2008

BARACK OBAMA is welcome to use Deval Patrick's words on the campaign trail. But if he makes it to the White House, Obama should definitely borrow someone else's playbook for his first year in office.

In Massachusetts, the rhetoric of hope quickly collided with the reality of governing, with disappointing results for the new governor. That - not silly charges of plagiarism by Hillary Clinton's campaign - is what makes their shared language worthy of some attention.

Beyond words, the parallels between their quests are obvious. David Axelrod, their mutual consultant, acknowledged it from the start.

"The Deval Patrick campaign in Massachusetts is a model, because of the way the grass roots drove the campaign. People felt ownership in his campaign," he said in a December 2006 interview, after Patrick won the governor's race and Obama mulled a presidential run. The hardest part of the outsider's campaign, explained Axelrod, is "to assure good people that it's safe to believe again, that you can suspend your cynicism and invest your hopes in a campaign."

Defying the odds and the cynics, Patrick won his party's nomination by beating the political establishment, including an incumbent attorney general and a wealthy businessman who once ran as the Democratic nominee for lieutenant govenor. He built a constituency vote by vote, community by community and prevailed in the general election to become the first Democrat in 16 years to capture the governor's office. Voters "checked back in" as Patrick urged. They saw his effort "not as my campaign, but as ours." They rallied and chanted "Together we can!"

Then came the really hard part.

Expectations soared when Patrick took office as the state's first black governor. His rookie mistakes were magnified by a media that turned harsh after mostly gentle coverage of his campaign. He also hit the wall known as Beacon Hill. During his first year, Democrats who control the Legislature ignored virtually every major budget and policy initiative presented by a fellow Democrat.

To his credit, Patrick did change the political conversation in Massachusetts and is making some policy progress in his second year in office.

However, there's debate over the substance of Patrick's proposed changes, which opponents sum up as a quest for new revenue to pay for new programs. Some liberal supporters are also turned off by his embrace of casino gambling to fund his agenda.

By now, Bay State voters also know that it takes old-fashioned politicking to find common ground, not just hope and flowery phrases. That understanding of political reality might explain why Democrats chose Clinton over Obama in the Massachusetts primary; it might also help to explain Clinton's primary victory in New Hampshire, where voters are exposed to Boston media coverage of the Patrick administration.

Still, Obama is inching closer to securing his party's nomination, with Patrick's campaign as the template. Like Patrick, Obama is beating the odds, the cynics, and the political establishment. He is building a constituency vote by vote, primary by primary, cutting across age, gender, and race lines to do it.

In state after state, voters are agreeing with Obama that "this campaign can't only be about me. It must be about us." They want change they can believe in, as Obama campaign signs proclaim. They are rallying and chanting "Yes we can."

Sure, it's a formula, but it only works in the hands of a seriously skilled campaigner. Both Patrick and Obama fit that description.

Clinton can't stop that magic now and maybe she never could. She had a brief window after New Hampshire to make her own, much less eloquent case. But she squandered it by sending Bill Clinton to South Carolina and her support has been in meltdown mode ever since.

By the way, Obama and Patrick share more than words. Like all politicians, they also share healthy egos.

In their inspirational riffs, these friends and political soulmates essentially equate their own language to the rhetoric of Franklin Delano Roosevelt ("We have nothing to fear but fear itself"); John F. Kennedy ("Ask not what your country can do for you"); and Martin Luther King Jr. ("I have a dream").

Of course, belief in self is a critical element of the audacity of hope. Patrick's first year in office shows that it has its limits.

Massachusetts knows how hard it is to translate words into action. But, to borrow a phrase and a cliche, hope springs eternal.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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