Democratic presidential candidate Deval Patrick is centering his fledgling campaign on a defense of corporations and capitalism that puts him directly at odds with some of the party's most progressive figures.
“There is a role in the economy for private equity. You bet your life,” Patrick said Monday night in an interview with The Associated Press during his first visit to Iowa since officially launching his campaign. “There's a lot of good that gets done by private interests investing in the country.”
Patrick is a former Massachusetts governor who, after serving as an assistant attorney general in the Clinton administration, built a successful and varied career working for businesses that today would be seen as anathema to the Democratic Party's progressive grassroots.
He served as counsel to an oil and gas company, on the board of a subprime lending company and most recently worked for Bain Capital, the private equity company that became an albatross around Republican Mitt Romney's neck during his presidential campaign in 2012 after President Barack Obama painted the company as ruthless toward middle-class workers.
But Patrick is banking that his moderation and business experience will be an asset in a field largely devoid of any credible business-oriented candidates, arguing for a vision in which capitalism can be a force for social good. That, he says, is the work he did during his time at Bain Capital, where he helped launch an investment fund focused on building out companies focused on positive social and environmental impacts.
“It's not the cartoon, God bless 'em, that was painted in the 2012 campaign,” he said. “And this is what we do, right? We pick a villain, we decide we're gonna make a caricature of him or her, and we run with that. That's not what I'm about.”
In a campaign in which rivals Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders launched to the front of the primary pack and stayed there by railing against big corporations and promising massive structural change, it remains to be seen whether Patrick's approach will catch fire with Democrats. On Monday night, he stood by his pro-business stance when asked if he believes corporations bear any responsibility for income inequality in the nation.
“I think we all have responsibility for inequality. We vote for the people and have voted for the people who have supported some of these strategies,” he said, pointing to tax policy that has favored the rich over the middle class.
Patrick also said there were “structural incentives” in the tax code for businesses to consolidate wealth, and that “we have a business culture that has been very short-term in focus.” Asked whether Bain Capital was part of that culture, Patrick said that “everyone in business is a part of that.”
“My point is, I'm not gonna say, `and therefore we shouldn't have business.' We can have capitalism that is humane. And I don't think that attacking any one company or any one sector is productive” he said.
In a departure from his previous political runs, Patrick pledged to release his own tax returns as he runs for president, potentially before the end of the year. And he said he planned to put out policies that would address the issues with the tax code and other structural drivers of inequality.
While Patrick said combating climate change is a priority for him, he does not plan to put his weight behind the Green New Deal, the progressive climate change policy backed by a handful of Democrats. “I am really, really cautious about governing by slogan,” he said, because the same policy can be interpreted in many different ways.
“There's a lot to like about it. It has some things that are actionable right now, and some things that are more aspirational,” he said, but offered no further details.
Patrick also parted with some in the field in his refusal to disavow contributions from executives, lobbyists and political action committees tied to oil and gas companies. Sixteen current candidates have signed a pledge refusing to take such contributions, but Patrick said he doesn't believe in “guilt by association.”
“There are good people in every kind of environment, or many kinds of environments, and if they want to support what it is we are trying to do _ which includes, by the way, a prompt move to a carbon-free economy … then I welcome their support,” he said.
Patrick launched his campaign last week to much fanfare but with little campaign organization and just over two months until the first nominating contest takes place in Iowa. He says he'll be watching Wednesday night's debate and “taking notes,” which he says he's done on previous debates
He'll face a challenge in getting to the debate stage. A late entry in the primary race makes it that much tougher to raise the awareness that his campaign will need to meet the polling and fundraising thresholds for future debates.
Patrick declined to commit to making it to next month's debate, but he insisted that “when the people are paying attention, I'll be part of the debate.”
That remains a major rationale for Patrick's late entry into the race: his belief that voters are just starting to tune in.
Speaking Monday night to a room full of Democratic activists who had already sat through an hour's worth of party business at the Polk County Democratic Party's monthly meeting, he acknowledged the weariness some of the committed activists have expressed at adding another candidate to the field, but he said he didn't agree.
“I know in Iowa, where you see everybody all the time, you are so done with candidates. I understand that from some of the mechanics of running for president, it feels late. But I gotta tell you, from the perspective of a whole lotta voters, it's not,” he said.
But Patrick himself acknowledged, almost self-consciously, that he's got some growing pains to get through as a candidate. After the Polk County meeting, he told reporters, “It was hot, it was crowded, and I stink at soundbites.”