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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