Everyone has a personal anecdote they retell just a little bit too often. Mine occurred in October 2007 at the Parkman Bandstand on Boston Common, where a first-term senator from Illinois gave a rousing speech to an adoring crowd about why he should be the next president of the United States. Immediately following his address, Barack Obama worked his way down the rope line shaking hands, including my own. I may or may not have washed it ever since.
What I have tended not to mention is the other hand I shook that night—that of Deval Patrick, the then-governor of Massachusetts who introduced and formally endorsed Obama moments before the future president stepped up to the podium. While the precise content of Patrick’s remarks is lost to history (except on YouTube, of course), what I remember vividly is my being utterly spellbound by this newly-inaugurated political dynamo who, like Obama, had emerged from practically nowhere (actually, from the world of corporate law) to ascend, ever-so-rapidly, to the highest ranks of elected office.
Hearing him speak on that crisp fall evening, it wasn’t difficult to see why. Marrying fiery passion and thoughtful confidence with an eloquence that few orators of his generation possess, Patrick on the stump had that magical ability to incite righteous fury about the world’s problems while inspiring thunderous hope that, if we only came together in common purpose, every one of those problems could be solved. While I may not have envisioned him as a future president in that particular moment—he was Obama’s opening act, after all—he nonetheless commanded my attention as no other public official (including Obama) ever has.
I mention this now, of course, because Patrick announced at the end of last week—quite unexpectedly—that he is running for president in 2020, some 11 months after ruling it out and a mere 12 weeks before the Democratic primaries begin.
Can he win? Common sense and the laws of political gravity say absolutely not. Between having no money, no name recognition and no chance of appearing at Wednesday’s nationally-televised debate (and possibly not the one in December, either), Patrick would seem to require no less than an act of God to assume anything close to a competitive edge in what is already the most overstuffed crowd of presidential hopefuls in modern history. What’s more, the apparent premise of his candidacy—that none of the preexisting Democratic candidates is exciting enough to defeat President Trump next November—is belied by most polls, which suggest the party’s voters are quite happy with their buffet of suitors and are not itching for a white (or black) knight to swoop in and save them from themselves.
If money were involved, I’d say Patrick doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell to be the 46th president and is out of his goddamned mind to enter the fray at this extremely late date.
And yet: That voice. That command of language and evocation of sacred ideals. That dogged optimism that—despite all evidence to the contrary—America remains a land of bottomless opportunity whose best days are yet to come.
If any Democrat in 2020 can pitch the idea that Donald Trump is a moral aberration whose reign can be swiftly overcome and forgotten—and has the rhetorical gifts to sell that notion to a majority of the persuadable public—it may well be Deval Patrick. Indeed, as in 2006 when he first ran for governor, his relative obscurity among most voters could prove more of an asset than a flaw. After nearly a year of witnessing the same half-dozen “serious” candidates circle each other like hungry sharks, here’s an entirely new species of politician for us to consider with fresh eyes. What’s the worst that could happen?
How this actually shakes out will reveal itself soon enough—in all likelihood, by the New Hampshire primary on February 11. In truth, probably the most—if not the only—notable thing about the abrupt, 11th-hour entrance into the Democratic race of an entirely new candidate is the sheer audacity of it all—the presumption that a would-be serious contender could forego nearly a year’s worth of fundraising and profile-building and somehow still wind up on top.
It’s an utterly ludicrous electoral strategy with a near-zero chance of succeeding. But then again, Patrick would not be the first African-American political wunderkind in this century to employ audacity as an operating principle and use it to turbocharge himself to the front of the pack. Weirder things have happened.
And will I, who has seen Patrick work his magic up close and in the flesh, cast my vote for him in the Massachusetts primary on March 3?
Ask me again on March 2.