GOP Governor Charlie Baker’s decision to opt out of a third-term election he’d probably have won is part of his appeal to the Massachusetts electorate. His disdain for the all-too-familiar despicable aspects of today’s political discourse has been reason enough to embrace him at home and place him consistently among the most favorably viewed of the nation’s governors. His affability, his capacity to work with the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature, his ability to listen to all points of view down to the municipal and grassroots level, and his projection of managerial competence all endeared him to people sickened by the lies and hatred of the Trump years.
Not that the reality of his managerial performance ever fully lived up to his vaunted managerial image. Think about the calamitous roll-out of the COVID vaccine program, the debacle at the Holyoke Soldiers Home, the routine failures of the T, the corruption at the State Police, and the failed data tracking at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, to name the most obvious.
But here was a good and decent guy with a fabulous record of accomplishments, who had turned around Harvard-Pilgrim and built a team to make it a national leader in health insurance. He was a champion of empowering women and a leader in persuading other public companies to place them on corporate boards. As Secretary of Administration and Finance, he had mastered the minutiae of state government. And he had the heart of the Human Services Secretary he was before heading A & F.
I first met Baker when he invited me to dinner in 1992 just after Governor Bill Weld had named him Health and Human Services Secretary. He was (oh, so) young, earnest, eager to learn. Here was an up-and-comer, just the type of person we needed to revitalize state government. I was impressed. As he grew older and wiser, he lost some of that youthful sheen but not his Teflon, except for his losing first bid for governor in 2010 when he ran to the right of what he actually believed. All told, he was a worthy vessel for the long tradition of enlightened Mass. Republicans represented by Henry Cabot Lodge, Leverett Saltonstall, Ed Brooke, Elliot Richardson, Frank Sargent, Bill Weld and (beloved Middlesex Sheriff) John Buckley.
In a state long defined by tribes within the Democratic Party (Kennedy, McCormack, Peabody, Bellotti, Quinn, Dukakis,) Massachusetts voters have frequently chosen divided government, comforted by having a responsible Republican in the corner office to balance the often overwhelmingly Democratic legislature. That predilection fit well with Baker’s congenial persona.
Increasingly assailed from within by the GOP’s far right, and by leftist Democratic protesters outside his suburban home, Baker seemed also to have been persuaded by family and life-balance considerations to bow out. Signaling he values something more than his political career, he comes across as a mensch.
Baker’s assertion that his announcement was predicated on wanting to spend the next year totally focused on managing the pandemic to its conclusion certainly was plausible. There is, however, an uncomfortable parallel to Lyndon Johnson’s March, 1968 announcement that he would not run for another term so he could focus on bringing an end to the Vietnam War. LBJ faced an almost-certain primary loss days later in Wisconsin. Given how Trump-embraced candidate Jeff Diehl is in tune with the state GOP base, the far-right-dominated primary for Baker would have been ugly at best and not a sure thing. I however think many Independents would probably have taken Republican ballots to help him prevail, a benefit LBJ didn’t have.
With Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito leaving the stage, the centrist tradition of the Massachusetts Republican Party appears dead. And with it go hopes for respectful bipartisanship in the Bay State. A Trump-endorsed Diehl cannot win a general election here. Buckle up for a robust Democratic primary, and, with it, the disgorging of opposition research and full employment for Democratic consultants and fundraisers.