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Deval Patrick's New Job: Finding A 2020 Candidate To "Break The Fever" Of Trump's Leadership

The former Massachusetts governor is talking with potential candidates as he creates a new role for himself after deciding not to run for president.

Posted on December 10, 2018, at 4:28 p.m. ET

Alex Trautwig / Getty Images

BOSTON — Deval Patrick, who is no longer considering running for president himself, sees a lot to like in Beto O’Rourke, the Texas lawmaker who is now weighing whether to run for the presidency in 2020.

“I liked him a lot. I liked his earnestness,” Patrick told BuzzFeed News in a wide-ranging interview after he decided against joining the presidential race for personal reasons. “He seemed serious. He seemed to have a set of core convictions without thinking that he had necessarily a lock on all of the best ideas. I respect that, because I think that’s hard in politics — it’s much more like a real human being.”

Patrick also had praise for two other Democrats who lost elections for higher office this year and now could potentially look to run in 2020 — Andrew Gillum, who ran for governor in Florida, and Stacey Abrams, who ran for governor in Georgia. Patrick said he has already spoken with two of the three in the last week.

“There is a nice mix of warmth, a self-confidence, and humility in all of them,” Patrick said. “And I think that that’s distinguishing in politics today. So it doesn’t surprise me that they would garner notice.”

Now that he’s officially not running, Patrick could serve as a power broker at the outset of the 2020 primary campaign. A longtime friend of Barack Obama, Patrick was considered to be a favorite possible candidate of the former president’s inner circle and now could help build relationships between that camp of high-level Democratic operatives and new presidential candidates.

His exit from the primary seems to now cement his status as one of the party’s elder statespeople whom younger Democrats can lean on for advice and guidance. Patrick said he “loves the fact” the primary will be highly competitive, and has already begun to field calls from potential candidates who want to get together to pick his brain and share ideas.

“It’s funny. I suddenly feel like I’m everybody’s friend,” a relaxed Patrick said during a lighter moment in a 45-minute interview.

Barack Obama leaving Air Force One with Patrick, March 5, 2014.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

Barack Obama leaving Air Force One with Patrick, March 5, 2014.

Patrick spent time with O’Rourke and his campaign during the race. He told BuzzFeed News back in October that his invite from the O’Rourke campaign in Texas (where he also campaigned for Colin Allred, the former NFL player who unseated Dallas Rep. Pete Sessions) happened a bit before O’Rourke became a viral sensation. Now, thrown into the chaos of determining who to keep their eye on for 2020, Patrick aides are curious about how enthusiasm for O’Rourke might play nationally.

In spotlighting O'Rourke's humility, Patrick seemed to suggest the path to reviving political discourse at the political moment marked by division is to put leaders out front who listen and who can disagree without giving in to partisan bitterness. “When we're dealing with some of our big social and cultural challenges our leaders need to be able to listen and be educated in the way Louis Pasteur described it, which is learning to listen to anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence,” he said.

“I liked that in a number of the people that I met in the course of the midterms, and I think Beto was one of those people," Patrick said. "I think Andrew was as well.”

For potential candidates, having Patrick’s ear is a clear-cut boon. He remains close to Obama and to a slew of aides who helped elect him president. And Patrick, who sometimes calls himself a political novice, is anything but: He is a two-term governor who has an ability to synthesize what he hears on the campaign trail into effective campaigning. His instinct now is that Americans are feeling “unseen and unheard” by the government and that there’s an opportunity for Democrats in 2020 to stand boldly on progressive principles. “One of the most interesting things about the moment I sense is that people have a larger appetite than usual for solutions to some our big challenges, and that’s a terrific time to be an innovator in politics.”

Patrick told BuzzFeed News he still wants to do what he can to help all of the Democratic candidates seeking the party’s presidential nomination in 2020, and gave a broad assessment of a field he thought he would join and what candidates are up against.

Patrick also had complimentary things to say about Joe Biden, whom he said he’s known since the former vice president was chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Biden, who is traveling the country to promote his new book, last week declared himself “the most qualified person in the country to be president.” Asked what his impression of Biden’s statement was, Patrick said Biden was “great” and that Biden loved people. “Everybody’s going to say they’re the most qualified,” Patrick said. “Had I gotten in, I’d have said that, too. Or at least qualified enough to be competitive.”

Then, he continued: “You really can’t know the job until you have it,” a point he said he made in a conversation with Obama last week. “You can imagine it. You can project yourself in it. [You can] work nearby. Until you have to make those kinds of decisions and carry that kind of weight, you can’t really know the job. And the job is not the same from administration to administration — and I think you could probably argue it’s not the same from day to day.”

Patrick said he also heard from another 2020 hopeful and friend, Elizabeth Warren.

Warren with Patrick at a news conference at the Statehouse in Boston, Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012.
Steven Senne / AP

Warren with Patrick at a news conference at the Statehouse in Boston, Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012.

Patrick said the rapid pace of societal and economic change, paired with the challenges facing America abroad, calls for leaders who will stand up against fear. It’s these sorts of comments that offer a glimpse at what Patrick’s candidacy might have looked like: big on optimism and kindness, and calling on Americans to live up to a patriotic duty to collectively cast out forces that led to Trump’s election — without talking all that much about Trump. Whoever fights that way wins, Patrick thinks.

“Americans don’t fancy themselves fearful people, but we have been governed by fear, and somebody’s going to have to break that fever,” he said. “And the person who breaks that fever is going to have to withstand a tremendous amount of criticism from the wise guys and wise gals that they’re selling some kind of happy talk. Because what we have accepted as sophistication is cynicism and some kind of hard-edged counterpunch. But cynicism is not what built this country, or what was behind any of the extraordinary or exceptional accomplishments in our history, and it’s not what’s going to break this fever right now. And we will see soon whether the potential I see in this field to stand up to that and reject that really emerges.”

Patrick dismissed the idea that there’s some magic formula for how to break through in what is shaping up as a very crowded primary; even Patrick said throughout his 2020 process that it was hard to see how he’d create his own noise. “I don’t know that it’s quite science. Some of it is the moment. Some of it’s the competition. Some of it is whether you feel you’ve found your own groove. I think it is certainly whether you feel you have your own calling. But if it were all about reason and résumé we’d have a different president today. It’s not. Some it is about the mood of the country and what the country is reacting to.”

Patrick said he had no opinion on whether Republicans should primary Trump. “I have friends in the Republican Party who are prominent former officials, names you know, who say watch what [Trump] does, not what he says. It’s one of the most disappointing things I’ve heard, but it doesn’t surprise me because in a way the president is right on trend. He in many respects says out loud what the party has been saying in code for a very long time, and he is delivering on some of their agenda. It turns out that in the bright light of day it is just as harsh when enacted as it was when presented in softer tones and it’s just as hurtful. So when are we on our side going to stop trying to adjust to that? When are we going to call that what it is and offer an alternative?

“If we do what we need to do, not only will we win and deserve to win as Democrats; it may break the fever on the Republican side, and we may see responsible Republicans step up again.”

Patrick’s learned not to live with regret. So he won't be waking up some day in June, wishing he'd run or itching with something to say. For now, he's game to make sure there's a good, clean fight.

"The candidate we want to emerge, that we hope and pray to emerge, is somebody who knows him or herself pretty well and is going to stay grounded and open and listening to everybody with an open heart," said Patrick. "Because it’s going to change from day to day. And how you adapt to that change is going to be critical."


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