Executive Privilege: When Unable to Diehl, Baker Exposes Deeper Truths…
UPDATED 10/29/18 9:13PM: To reflect a correction. A prior version of this article stated the next debate is/was Sunday. Rather, Baker & Gonzalez’s last debate is Thursday, November 1.
Depending on what happens on November 6, history may record Republican Governor Charlie Baker’s October 17 faceoff with Democratic rival Jay Gonzalez as a mere speed bump. As WGBH’s Jim Braude pressed Baker on whether or not he was voting for Republican US Senate candidate Geoff Diehl, His Excellency choked. For one rare, beautiful moment—well, maybe not so beautiful—the governor had been exposed.
Baker eventually clarified he was voting for Diehl despite the former’s disgust and/or disagreement with some of the Senate nominee’s more reprehensible positions. Yet, it was too late. Both Gonzalez and the Bay State political press corps descended on Baker like vultures upon a desiccating corpse. The reason was relatively simple. They were seeing a Baker almost wholly unlike the one they are used to.
To this day, Baker’s approval rating is mostly air. Poll him as a person and he does well. Poll him on issues, and he barely treads water. Voters have disassociated the two thanks to a savvy two front strategy that has sedated the press and Democratic opposition on Beacon Hill and in municipalities. Helpfully, the latter fortifies the latter.
With some exceptions, Baker and elected Democrats enjoy a détente. It masquerades as effective cooperation, but really it reflects the worst of Beacon Hill’s tendency toward inertia. That suits (too) many Beacon Hill Democrats just fine who are spared tough votes on, well, anything. Thus, the legislature itself largely escapes any scrutiny, too.
Baker doesn’t want public opprobrium for constantly vetoing popular progressive priorities, but nor is he, as his Republican predecessors did, shoving conservative legislation down lawmakers’ throats. Even on his agenda, he’s not very adamant. Remember Baker’s plan to gut MassHealth coverage? No? You’re not alone.
Local Dems are the same. Baker or his emissary to the little people, Karyn Polito, cuddle up with local leaders and hand out goodies. But aside from an important if poorly understood municipal rewrite, Baker has done little of substance for localities. If anything, in arch-Democratic places like Springfield, he has appealed to the worst of politics yet again.
Any idiot—who watches 36 Court Street closely—could tell Mayor Domenic Sarno’s Baker backing was payback for Gonzalez rightly excoriating hizzoner’s threats to a church sheltering an immigrant. Likewise, Baker appoints a man who bankrupted Springfield nearly a generation ago to a six-figure job. Perhaps, Baker forgot how, as Secretary of Administration & Finance, he failed to properly scrutinize the profligacy of then-mayor & now unemployment commissioner Michael Albano.
The lack of conflict gives voters the impression everything is hunky-dory, but also discourages the press to cover state politics in an unflattering way absent overt corruption or a sex scandal.
That alone does not explain the press’s relatively soft touch with Baker. After all, he hasn’t really managed government any better than Deval Patrick. Baker’s predecessor was frequently raked over the coals for things that were quite plainly not always his fault or for not ordering a cosmetic fix (Barack Obama also suffered from this latter impulse to his political detriment).
Under Baker, huge scandals have erupted in two law enforcement agencies and his administration below the assistant secretary level is bursting with hacks, donors and their children. Democrats have no right to sanctimony on the latter, but Baker promised he’d do otherwise. Worse still, Baker seems oblivious to it and gets testy when called out, however briefly. It doesn’t matter that shoddy hiring almost engulfed an unwitting Republican state senator into a near-racketeering scandal.
Rather, Baker escapes harsher coverage because he seems like that manager-in-chief. When political fertilizer flies into the ventilation system, His Excellency comes out and takes command. Doing so discourages political analysis pieces from noting how many brown spots are accumulating on his person.
That is what made the debate such a shock. Baker was not, amid the stammering and incoherence, in command. His clarification about backing Diehl—made to keep the conservative voters whom Baker habitually irks in the fold—did not help. It made the governor look wishy-washy and underscored a Massachusetts political curiosity: Baker’s refusal to officially dump the right-wing when he seems solid without it.
(One answer may be that Baker’s people know his numbers are soft and can’t risk Democrats suddenly coming home to Gonzalez even at the last second).
Baker came into office with middling support after a nasty race against former Attorney General Martha Coakley which he won by plurality. Only after a command performance following a snowstorm did Bay Staters start swooning for Charlie.
As a practical matter, who gets Baker’s vote for senator may have little electoral impact on its own. Rather, Gonzalez likely hopes it could squeeze out donations to up his TV ads. Once voters see they have a choice, Bakermania could be over.
This fundamentally illustrates the problem with this ace.
Bay Staters are not voting for Baker because of the endless politician-in-a-can ads from his campaign. They’re voting for him because they lack sufficient information to realize Charlie Baker’s Massachusetts is no nirvana.
Make no mistake. Baker is not an empty shirt like Scott Brown or a craven electoral climber like Mitt Romney. He is too much of a nerd to not care about the nuts and bolts of governing. But from the moment Baker first stuffed himself into one of those sexy MEMA vests—if only in jest—Baker has played the command role well above all else, if in his own milquetoast way.
Only in that second debate could the press and the commonwealth watch His Excellency’s artifice undeniably fall. Whether it will repeat in Thursday’s third and final debate let alone affect the election itself is another matter entirely.