Charles in Charge

The governor of Massachusetts is a fellow named Charlie Baker.  If you don’t live in the commonwealth, you’ve probably never heard of him, yet he is consistently ranked as the most popular governor in the United States.  According to a recent WBUR survey, Baker is approved of by 67 percent of his constituents, putting him ahead not only of his 49 counterparts, but also every other high-ranking official in Massachusetts, including Senator Elizabeth Warren.  First elected in 2014, Baker is gunning for a second term on November 6, and, as with Warren, the question isn’t whether he’ll win, but by how much.

Oh, and did I mention he’s a Republican in one of the most liberal states in America?

In a country more ideologically polarized than it has been in decades, Baker is a true anomaly:  An elected member of one political party widely admired by members of another in his own backyard.  (Only 11 percent of Massachusetts voters are Republicans, while 34 percent are Democrats and 54 percent are independents.)

What’s his secret?  How can a Republican win statewide office in a Democratic stronghold and maintain uncommonly high support throughout his first four years on the job?

One answer—as posited recently in the Boston Globe—is that, on a multitude of issues, Baker has essentially governed as a Democrat.  Whether it’s raising taxes to fund paid leave benefits or signing legislation to preserve abortion and transgender rights, Baker could easily be mistaken for his liberal predecessor, Deval Patrick—a man who, despite defeating Baker in 2010, was never as admired in office as Baker is now.

While this Republican-in-name-only theory certainly holds water—indeed, by necessity, virtually all elected Republicans in Massachusetts would pass for Democrats in, say, Alabama or South Dakota—there is a deeper explanation for the governor’s unprecedented levels of goodwill—an explanation that, in turn, offers a glimmer a hope for the future of American politics:

Baker is exceptionally popular because he is exceptionally boring.

If the essence of Baker’s tenure could be distilled into a single X-factor, it would be his near-superhuman propensity to avoid controversy and conflict on virtually every issue that comes down the pike—to position himself as far removed from the heat of legislative friction as possible, thereby relieving himself of culpability for any unsightly political hiccups along the way.

To attempt to nail him down on a particular topic is the ultimate exercise in futility:   As far as he’s concerned, expressing a clear opinion about a matter still under debate is tantamount to obstruction of the democratic process, and he is loath to give anyone the satisfaction of divulging what he really thinks—if, indeed, he thinks anything at all.

In ordinary times, Baker’s aversion to the rough and tumble of political combat might be seen as a liability—a mark of cowardice, timidity and cynicism unbecoming of the chief executive of Massachusetts.

In our own time, however—an epoch dominated by a president who inserts himself into every facet of life, no matter how petty or inappropriate—there is something acutely refreshing about a governor with zero interest in making himself the center of attention, who errs (if a bit too much) on the side of caution and generally allows the legislature to do its work before offering his own two cents in the form of a signature or a veto.

In this way, Charlie Baker is everything Donald Trump is not:  He’s circumspect where Trump is impulsive, sober where Trump is hysterical, mature where Trump is childish, aloof where Trump is omnipresent, competent where Trump is bungling, compassionate where Trump is cruel.

Perhaps the most accurate word to summarize the governor’s first term—at least in the eyes of the voting public—is “inoffensive.”  While the Baker administration has hardly been free of scandal—the state police force is corrupt almost beyond measure and public transportation is an ongoing dumpster fire of inefficiency—Baker himself is so adept at dodging blame for any of the state’s shortcomings—expressing displeasure without assuming any particular responsibility—people have conditioned themselves to cut him an inordinate amount of slack, believing that if old Charlie can’t solve the problem, perhaps nobody else can, either.

After all, Baker ran in 2014 as the former CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, vowing to carry over the keen business instincts he honed from that job into the corner office on Beacon Hill—none more so than his seemingly genuine belief in valuing steadiness, compromise and the bottom line over division, partisanship and a sense that only one side of an argument can win.

In a nation driven mad by the insidious nonsense emanating daily from the Oval Office, even a place like Massachusetts could use a little dullness from its leadership every now and again.

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Consent of the Governed, Part 2

This past Monday, the president nominated Judge Brett Kavanaugh to replace Anthony Kennedy on the U.S. Supreme Court.  The balance of power being what it is, unless Kavanaugh is found with a dead girl or a live boy (in the immortal words of Edwin Edwards), he will be confirmed by the Senate later this year and the nation’s highest court will be as ideologically conservative as it has ever been in our lifetimes.

From the moment Justice Kennedy announced his retirement last month, liberals have been running around the airwaves with their hair on fire, screaming that this development constitutes the end of the world as we know it.  That the replacement of Kennedy’s so-called moderation with the true blue right-wingery of his successor will usher in a generation of irreversibly destructive decisions on every issue the left holds sacred, from abortion rights to gun control to civil liberties to campaign finance reform.

While Democrats’ concerns about Kavanaugh are undoubtedly well-founded—after all, he comes pre-packaged and pre-approved by the conservative judge factory known as the Federalist Society—they are also misleading and incomplete, insomuch as they overlook a much larger and more profound fact:

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 85 years old.

Lament Kennedy’s departure if you wish, but the truth is that he was a fundamentally right-wing jurist whose flirtations with progressive causes, however crucial, were few and far between.  While he is rightly credited with preserving abortion rights in 1992 and effectuating same-sex marriage in 2015, he is equally responsible for the majority opinions in Bush v. Gore and Citizens United v. FEC—the two worst Supreme Court decisions since Plessy v. Ferguson, according to most liberals.  During the most recent term, he voted with the court’s conservative wing in every high-profile case that was decided by a 5-4 vote.  Every.  Single.  One.

Long story short:  Replacing Kennedy with a rock-ribbed conservative will not be the end of the world as we know it.  But replacing Ruth Bader Ginsburg with a rock-ribbed conservative?  That will be the end of the world as we know it.

Perhaps it is bad form to observe that most human beings do not live forever, but if the Democratic Party is truly freaked out about losing every major Supreme Court case for a generation or more, it must come to grips with the fact that its most beloved and indispensable justice—the Notorious RBG—is an octogenarian and two-time cancer patient who, for health reasons, might need to leave the bench before the next Democratic president takes office.  Ginsburg may intend to serve well beyond the current administration, but then again, so did Antonin Scalia on February 12, 2016.

If Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer plan to make themselves useful in the coming months, they ought to emphasize, in no certain terms, that a Republican-majority Senate in 2018-2019 guarantees the appointment of Judge Kavanaugh—already a foregone conclusion, so far as I can tell—and that the re-election of Donald Trump in 2020 makes it exceedingly likely the court will contain only three—or perhaps only two—liberals by the end of Trump’s second term.  (Ginsburg’s like-minded colleague Stephen Breyer turns 80 next month.)

Elections have consequences, and one of them is a Supreme Court shaped in the image of the sitting commander-in-chief—an arrangement that has been in place continuously since 1787.

The left can whine all it wants about Russian shenanigans and Mitch McConnell’s dirty tricks vis-à-vis Merrick Garland, but the fact remains that people voted for president in November 2016 in the full knowledge that a) the winning candidate would be selecting the successor to the late Antonin Scalia, and that b) there would almost surely be additional openings on the court before his or her presidential tenure was up.  Candidate Trump made this point repeatedly on the campaign trail.  In retrospect, Hillary Clinton did not make it nearly enough—a mistake her party’s candidate in 2020 would be well-advised to avoid.

Lame as it may sound, Neil Gorsuch is on the Supreme Court today because Donald Trump received the most electoral votes in 2016 and there weren’t enough Democrats in the Senate to stop him.  Brett Kavanaugh will be on the Supreme Court this fall for precisely the same reason.

If you find this situation intolerable, you have two choices:  You can vote for Democratic senators on November 6, 2018, and for a Democratic presidential candidate on November 3, 2020.  Or you can assume John Roberts will magically evolve into a liberal overnight and that Ruth Bader Ginsberg will live to 120.

Personally, I’d recommend Option No. 1, however inconvenient it might be.  You’d be surprised what a democracy can accomplish when its citizens behave democratically.

Consent of the Governed

If you’re wondering about the state of civics education in America today, look no further than a recent episode of Jeopardy!  In the first round of questions and answers, the $400 clue in a category about government read, “This document ends, ‘We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.’”

Not a single contestant rang in.  On America’s flagship TV game show, none of the three players could recognize the climactic clause of the most famous document in the history of the United States, the Declaration of Independence.

While I understand that Jeopardy! is considerably more difficult in front of a live studio audience than from the comfort of one’s couch, I’d like to think there are certain sentences that are embedded in the soul of every man, woman and child in America, and that “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” is chief among them.

However, as one survey after another has shown, this is increasingly not the case.  With each passing generation, we, the people, have become progressively less knowledgeable about the history of this country and our duties as citizens thereof.

Beyond our ignorance of the basic facts of America’s founding—like how, for example, we actually declared our independence from Britain on July 2, not July 4—we have demonstrated an alarming mixture of confusion about and indifference to our obligations as participants in a democratic republic, not the least of which is the act of informed voting.

Case in point:  Last week, the Democratic Party establishment was thrown for a loop by the surprising primary victory in New York’s 14th House district by political neophyte (and self-proclaimed democratic socialist) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.  For all the talk about how the win by Ocasio-Cortez portends a definite leftward shift by her party’s base this fall—a base that is suddenly shot full of hope and adrenaline for the first time in two years—it was equally the case that a mere 13 percent of the district’s eligible voters bothered to cast a ballot in the first place.

In other words, the media spent a full week rethinking the narrative trajectory of the 2018 midterms based on a single race in which seven-eighths of the district did not  even participate.  Is this really our idea of representative democracy in action?

Regrettably, yes.

This is to take nothing away from Ocasio-Cortez, a spirited and savvy campaigner who inspired her future constituents in a way her opponent, Joe Crowley, did not.  In truth, such an abysmally low turnout rate is utterly typical for a congressional primary held in the middle of the summer—indeed, it would barely be aberrational for an election held in September.

As a rule, Americans do not vote more than once every four years, and tens of millions never vote at all.  While there are numerous (and often complex) reasons for this—deliberate, systematic suppression being the most insidious—the simple fact is that the majority of these non-participants just plain don’t care who represents them in the public square—be it the legislature, town hall, state house or White House—and cannot be bothered to do the research necessary to know which candidate to choose when the designated day arrives.

Hence the fact that virtually no one (including me) seemed to have heard of Ocasio-Cortez until the day after her win—much like how, according to one survey, only 37 percent of us can name our own congressperson without looking it up.  Or how, according to another survey, a mere one in four can identify all three branches of government, while 31 percent cannot name a single one.

I could go on.  Oh, how I could go on.

In a letter to a friend in 1816, Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”  Less famous—but perhaps more important—was the subsequent clause:

“The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents.  There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves; nor can they be safe with them without information.  Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.”

On this Fourth of July—the 192-year anniversary of Jefferson’s death—might I humbly suggest that, if we truly wish to pull our country back from the abyss, we direct our righteous indignation not at our leaders, but at ourselves.  That we reflect that there isn’t a single official on Capitol Hill or in the White House who wasn’t democratically elected—or appointed by someone who was—and that if we want a fresh set of representatives in 2019—and, with them, a fresh set of policies and ideas—we have it in our power (as we always have) to sweep them into office and to throw the bums out.

Election Day is November 6.  I’ll be there.  Will you?