Analysis: Baker at 12 Months…Still a Political Man of Mystery…
UPDATED: 10:30AM: To include details about Baker’s Western Mass office.
SPRINGFIELD—The doors to the former courtroom on the state office building’s third floor flung open. Charlie Baker stepped out into the corridor, an expression of mild bemusement on his face, and excitedly, if awkwardly, gesticulated with both arms to the waiting local pols, urging them to join him for his much-ballyhooed cabinet meeting.
Earnest by virtue of its own ungainliness, this display was a tiny example of Baker’s bid to exile 2010’s “mean Charlie” and connect with everyday Bay Staters and skeptical Dems. Baker joyfully takes selfies and describes issues informally as “stuff.” These efforts, however sincere or not, can seem staged, but also oddly endearing. They do not explain what his administration is all about, however.
As a candidate, Baker promised a result-oriented administration that would “make Massachusetts great again,” a phrase regrettably trumped by others. As with hairpieces running for higher offices now, this conveyed almost nothing about what Baker would do and how. It won him the election, but has endured in office, muddling the portrait of Baker as governor.
Even judged on a learning curve, Baker’s first year yielded little in the way of a coherent overarching agenda. His Mr. Fix-it image contends with a year of half-measures, posturing and some hypocrisy.
Baker confounds progressives and non-legislative Democrats alike whose priorities are frustrated by his stratopheric polling numbers. Archconservatives are no happier, ripping Baker’s alleged consensus-building as an unnecessary, feckless kumbaya moment with the guarded, old-school House Speaker and unabashedly progressive, yet wonky Senate President.
Regarding Western Massachusetts, cosmetic politics have been common for Baker. He rarely visited the 413 until NEPR noted his absence and even now many trips here are for fundraisers. His Western Mass office is staffed, but not by longtime Pioneer Valley denizens.
As for the spectacle of his cabinet meeting in Massachusetts’s occident, political watchers say other governors have done the same. However, the event—closed to the press—featured no new policy, grants or news. Sources inside the meeting confirmed little happened behind closed doors.
Nevertheless, Baker was barely prepared to speak about local issues like leadership turnover at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home. Earlier in the day, he offered little substantive opinion, let alone policy views, while visiting Duggan Middle School according to news reports.
Baker’s comments on statewide and national matters have been less than illuminating.
After the attacks in Paris, Baker rejected the settlement of refugees in Massachusetts. Aides insisted he only wanted to know more about the federal government’s vetting process first, but to make such a purely political statement—governors cannot stop the settlement of refugees—only damaged Massachusetts’s reputation by casting its lot with infamously less tolerant states.
To Baker’s credit, he reversed himself later, but it follows other gaffes such as on the Confederate flag. Both incidents conflicted with the kinder, gentler more moderate Charlie that Baker pitched last year.
Perhaps part of the problem is Baker and his staff have invested so much time and energy on shaping—and sticking to—a depiction of Baker as a nice guy problem-solver.
That image is probably not responsible for his robust polling numbers, but Baker, a waspy governor of a rapidly diversifying state, may think he needs to bolster style over substance to remain popular.
Despite this, Baker differs from his most recent statewide GOP forebears in important ways. He lacks the naked pathological need to be elected—and thus liked—that afflicted Mitt Romney. Nor is Baker the substance-lite vacuum Scott Brown was. Still, the governor can seems scattershot and nebulous.
Baker has said the right things about public records reform and his work on the Department of Children and Families, while still needing millions more in funding to succeed, is laudable. He has put forward solid, serious proposals worthy of debate and consideration. All of these are works in progress, though.
While Baker has taken responsibility for the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, which could be a problem should the system fail this winter, his control board is far from reforming it. Moreover, he has not fully committed to the millions the MBTA will inevitably need.
The governor took another hit when his office turned back a reporter’s request to see the resumes of newly hired employees after his office fell behind on a pledge to make them available.
Baker earned plaudits from the legislature for solving a billion dollar deficit. To lawmakers’ relief, Baker never highlighted that they had a hand in its creation. As the current, fully Baker-supervised budget has sprung a leak, he has yet to offer solutions.
His office did celebrate the pittance of a tax break Bay Staters will receive when the income tax ratchets down by a twentieth of a percent ($33 for households earning the Massachusetts median income). The commonwealth, meanwhile will lose $74 million in revenue.
If Baker’s course on policy remains unplottable, then his relationship with his own party can seem weird. The Boston Globe reported last month that Baker is trying to sow the Republican state committee with more moderates. Nonetheless Baker embraced hard-right state rep Geoff Diehl’s unsuccessful bid for the late Thomas Kennedy’s state senate seat.
Meanwhile the Massachusetts GOP’s right flank has criticized the governor. National Republican Committeewoman Chanel Prunier, who backed Baker over tea partier Mark Fisher, registered disapproval of Baker’s governance via backhanded praise of Deval Patrick’s leadership style.
Maybe Baker is the second coming of Bill Weld and can thrive with a bipartisan approach, a centrist mien and a folksy (enough) personality. Baker could still roll out more substantive policy and reveal his true self, though that could scuff up his snazzy approval rating. For now he seems content to put that polling on a shelf to admire it.
Whether it will ultimately threaten him in 2018 or not, Baker will face a reckoning. With a widening budget gap, Baker may face tough, politically treacherous choices sooner rather than later.
Speaking in Springfield, Baker offered no explanation of how he would close the deficit, but was asked if he would continue to shelter local aide from cuts.
“During the campaign we made a commitment to support local aid and Chapter 70 [local education] aid,” he said.
That was not a solid yes.