Charlie Baker’s Dispiriting Drift Left as Strategic Planning

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For many Bay State Republicans, Governor Charlie Baker’s administration is the advancement of a dishonest marketing campaign:  Baker and Switch. (Run as a Republican, cozy up to Democrats, disown the Republican Party.) Rejected Republicans, perhaps feeling duped from day one, should take note. Baker’s dispiriting drift to the left may just prove to be a stroke of genius for reelection in 2018. Ironically, it’s a plan without Republicans — the abandoned, fatherless children of Massachusetts politics.

The plan was actually hatched well before President Donald Trump skunked The Party of Ronald Reagan. As Baker’s Senior Advisor Tim Buckley told The Atlantic, the governor’s campaign in 2014 focused from the beginning on “showing he could say ‘screw you’ to the Republican Party.” A political throw-down, those words have proven to be prophetic but also strategic.

The cold calculus of political reality, as Baker’s team knows, does not favor any Republican in the Commonwealth, let alone an incumbent Republican governor. As of February 2017, there were 4,486,849 registered voters in Massachusetts, with just 479,237 registered Republicans (11 percent of the total). Unenrolled voters number 2,424,979 (54 percent) while registered Democrats number 1,526,870 (34 percent). Since the 2014 election, unenrolled voters have increased by 133,824, while Republican voters have increased by only 9,973. Increased unenrolled voter registration is trending upwards, and may accelerate, as Trumpism (a governing style resembling the Coney Island Cyclone) roars through the land.

Even though Baker beat Martha Coakley by just 40,165 votes in 2014, the election was a blue lagoon of civility. Next year’s election, by comparison, will be a dark pool of uncertainty but will certainly feature a rabid anti-Trump sentiment and, by extension and association, Republican defensive posturing. And in the Commonwealth — what fun! — the proselytizing progressive (Elizabeth Warren) will also be on the ballot. Republicans will be the expendables. Something the governor, understandably, wishes to defy.

Baker is an elusive electoral enigma.

He is a social liberal and a fiscal conservative who has melted the cryogenically frozen corpse of Rockefeller Republicanism into new life. He enjoys a 75 percent approval rating in a state where Democrats control 79 percent of the House and 83 percent of the Senate, and Hillary Clinton overwhelmingly won last November (61 percent to Trump’s 33 percent). He maintains a working relationship with the House Speaker, Robert DeLeo (where power resides), whose understated temperament is like his own. And, oddly, he operates without a political base, given the miniscule minority status of his party.

Harboring zero national ambitions, Baker would be the first Republican Massachusetts governor to be reelected since William Weld in 1994 (who resigned in 1997 after being nominated as U.S. Ambassador to Mexico). Furthermore, Baker could be the first Republican in the modern era (begun in 1966, when terms were extended from two to four years) to serve a full two terms. The last Republican governor to accomplish such a feat was Foster Furcolo (1957-1961), just as John Kennedy was elected president.

Baker’s survival instincts are validated by this paradoxical fact:  Even as prospective Democratic gubernatorial candidates (Setti Warren, Jay Gonzalez, and Bob Massie) rightly cite his lack of grand vision for Massachusetts, many Democrats on Beacon Hill quietly concede that state government is functioning better under the bi-partisan executive leadership of Baker than it did under his predecessor, Democrat Deval Patrick (who, with contempt for hands-on management, always spoke with a grand vision). As The Boston Globe noted last week, “State Democrats turn attention to Trump, not Baker, at convention.

Still, for conservatives (a fringe of the fringe in the Commonwealth) hoping there might be some application of conservative ideas in this playground of progressivism, there is deep dissatisfaction with the governor. His risky political plan (popularity is perishable; a large unenrolled bloc can shift allegiance quickly) is, some believe, at the expense of foundational principles.

Howie Carr recently wrote in the Boston Herald:  “As his first term in the Corner Office continues, it seems that the Republican-in-Name-Only (RINO) governor finds himself more and more ‘disappointed,’ not just with his party affiliation, but also with the drift of public affairs in general.”

That might explain Baker’s puzzling appointment last week of Rosalin Acosta, a Lowell bank executive, as his labor secretary. Acosta (a progressive activist and anti-Trump enthusiast) and her husband this year founded Indivisible Northern Essex, a liberal advocacy group that began supporting progressive candidates around the country. Should a progressive run against Baker, who will Acosta vote for?

Baker opposes the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change, advocates against the Republican healthcare plan to repeal Obamacare (fearing a $1 billion shortfall in state funding), and, while he disapproves Massachusetts being a “sanctuary state,” he believes, quixotically, that “this is the kind of decision that should be made at the local level.” Straddling left-leaning causes so closely may have unintended consequences. WGBH, citing a poll by the consulting firm Novus, reports that more than a third of Massachusetts voters now look to Baker to protect federal spending (from budget and healthcare cuts).

Progressives are loathed to admit that the entitlement state they helped create has a cost component not adequately addressed, let alone financed, today. With less than a month left in fiscal year 2017, there remains a massive budget shortfall (as a result of the perennial excuse of “lower revenue,” not over-spending). And just last month, a report revealed a massive shortfall in the MBTA pension plan (requiring $1 billion in additional taxpayer funding over the next 18 years if it is to pay retirees as promised and remain solvent). Baker is loathe to admit that sooner or later his fiscal conservative credentials will be needed to resolve these issues, work that will surely inflict pain on all residents of the Commonwealth.

Only one question remains, then, for Republicans:  As Baker continues to campaign from the left, should he win in 2018, will he shift back and start to govern from the right? Of course, that strategic effort may occur without their involvement too.


James P. Freeman is a New England-based writer and former columnist with The Cape Cod Times.