Updated at 3:30 on February 28.
After winning reelection in November by a margin that surprised even close advisers, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick is developing into a potent weapon for the Democratic Party and the president -- and taking home-state hostages as he does so.
In an interview with National Journal on Sunday during his visit to Washington for the National Governors Association annual winter meeting, Patrick shed his jacket and customary gentility to double down on criticisms of two prominent Republicans from his home state who have posed political challenges to the governor's friend, President Obama.
Seated backwards on a stacking chair in the J.W. Marriott hotel, Patrick described Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., who campaigned to be the "41st vote" against Obama's agenda in the Senate, as torn between his Massachusetts constituents and the GOP's right wing. Patrick went so far as to name Democrats who have already committed, in private conversations with the governor, to run against Brown.
Doing his best to cause trouble for a leading potential Obama opponent, Patrick is also delivering backhanded compliments to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a likely GOP presidential candidate.
Earlier Sunday, on ABC’s This Week, Patrick praised Romney's work on the 2006 landmark health care expansion bill in Massachusetts, which provided a template for the federal version and has, therefore, created difficulties for Romney among conservatives. When an NJ reporter pointed out that legislative leaders had crafted most of the bill, Patrick said of Romney, “Well, he took a lot of credit for it at the time.”
Obama picked up the theme today in his speech to the governors. "I agree with Mitt Romney, who recently said he’s proud of what he accomplished on health care in Massachusetts and supports giving states the power to determine their own health care solutions," the president said.
Patrick has been upping his national profile, and is planning to campaign hard for Obama's reelection. He's holding a fundraiser in Washington tonight for an as-yet unnamed political action committee that will underwrite his campaign travels for Obama.
Pointing to his larger-than-expected victory over Republican Charles Baker and independent Timothy Cahill, Patrick said Obama’s team, which overlaps with his own, should derive lessons from the unreconstructed-Democrat approach that Patrick projected. That would be a far cry from the centrist overtures the president has made in the last few months.
“I think they’ve learned a lot from us, and we’ve learned from them,” Patrick said. The 2006 campaign that made him Massachusetts' first African American governor drew from Obama’s successful 2004 Senate bid, Patrick said, a two-year learning cycle that repeated itself when Obama ran for president in 2008 and Patrick for reelection last year.
Patrick said Obama should not turn his back on the ground-up campaign structure that propelled both men to historic wins and helped power Patrick to reelection, a template he believes could sustain Obama next year.
“I believe strongly it’s important not to underestimate the power of the grassroots,” said Patrick, who throughout his first term expressed regrets about not doing a better job of involving his grassroots election supporters in governing.
Though Patrick said he had not been actively recruiting challengers for Brown, he told NJ he has spoken with four potential candidates – City Year founder Alan Khazei, Democratic activist Robert Massie, Newton Mayor Setti Warren, and Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll.
“Kim is not in; she has not made up her mind, but I know she’s thinking about it seriously. But Alan and Bob and Setti are in, for sure,” Patrick said. He added that former finance executive and Romney aide Robert Pozen, who has said he will run for Senate as a Democrat if the party asks him, had been trying to get in touch.
“I haven’t talked to Bob. We’ve traded phone calls, but I haven’t talked to him,” the governor said. Another potential candidate, Rep. Michael Capuano, one of Patrick's early political supporters dating back to the 2006 campaign, had not indicated to him whether he had decided to run, Patrick said.
The governor described Brown as a politician caught between his constituency and conservatives in his party.
“My sense is that he is struggling a little bit to decide whether he’s going to work for the people of the Commonwealth or work for the hard right,” Patrick told NJ. “And I think he’s trying to find his footing. That’s what the experience of working with him as senator has been over the past year.”
Patrick pointed to Brown’s initial criticism of an extension of unemployment assistance, which eventually gave way as part of the compromise package last December that sustained the Bush-era tax cuts. Patrick said there was “something upside down about that” deal that bound assistance for the jobless with tax cuts for the affluent. Brown proposed an alternative deal that he said was budget-neutral.
“I just think that’s an example of how he’s been trying to decide whom he serves,” Patrick said.
Brown spokeswoman Gail Gitcho emailed in response: “Scott Brown voted for President Obama’s bill that extends unemployment and keeps taxes low for all Americans.”
Like Brown, Patrick is releasing a memoir-style book, A Reason To Believe. Patrick said his book tour would likely be limited, taking him to New York, Washington, Chicago, likely Los Angeles, and possibly Atlanta.