Checkpoint Charlie

Charlie Baker, the governor of Massachusetts, has consistently ranked among the two or three most admired statewide leaders since he was first elected in 2014, with job approval ratings in the high-60s to low-70s. Not bad for a Republican in an extremely Democratic state. (Indeed, he has historically polled higher among Democrats than Republicans. But that’s another story.)

Since the novel coronavirus upended life as we thought we knew it, forcing all 50 states to place their economies in a state of suspended animation, Baker’s popularity has only grown. According to a Suffolk University poll released last week, some 84 percent of Massachusetts residents approve of Baker’s stewardship of the COVID-19 plague—a stratospheric figure even in the context of a national emergency that has seen virtually all governors’ popularities spike. (Overall, 71 percent of Americans approve of their own governor’s handling of the pandemic.)

While there are many possible explanations for the extraordinary goodwill toward Baker by his constituents, I’d offer two as the most self-evident: He is smart, and he is boring.

By smart, I don’t just mean that he has a bunch of fancy degrees from a bunch of swanky universities. Rather, I mean that when he is presented with a problem—be it a faulty public transit system or a contagious, deadly virus—he takes it upon himself to base all major decisions on data, experts and the proverbial facts on the ground. As a former healthcare CEO and state budget chief, he knows his way around a spreadsheet as well as anybody and will happily rattle off statistics until your eyes roll all the way into the back of your head.

In his daily COVID press conferences, Baker has only ever measured the state’s success in beating back the virus—and in planning for the future—in terms of raw numbers: tests, cases, hospitalizations, deaths. In the face of recent criticism that the state is moving too slowly in announcing which industries will be allowed to re-open—and how and when—Baker merely reiterates his longstanding view that the mechanics of returning to normal will be determined by the fickle course of the pandemic itself, and thus cannot be gamed out too far in advance. As he has put it on multiple occasions, “We have to respect the virus.”

So far as I can tell, Baker has not wavered from this basic operational and philosophical framework since this nightmare began in mid-March, which is perhaps why his televised daily updates have tended to blend into each other, consisting largely of Baker repeating his previous advisories concerning mask-wearing, social distancing and other best practices for the general public. While he will occasionally introduce critical new information into the mix—such as when he delayed the state’s tentative “re-opening” date from May 4 to May 18, or when he first enumerated the state’s plan for “contact tracing”—he otherwise seems perfectly content to produce as little drama as possible, almost as if he’s allergic to being the center of attention and making more news than is strictly necessary.

That brings us to his other main virtue: boringness. It has been theorized for years—specifically, since November 2016—that Massachusetts voters’ appreciation for Baker—a moderate, mild-mannered technocrat—is primarily a function of their smoldering antipathy toward Donald Trump, and their relief that not all Republicans are as craven, corrupt and creepy as the current commander-in-chief. That Baker’s apparent disinterest in toeing the national party line—not to mention his stated personal distain for Trump himself—is reason enough to have him in the corner office on Beacon Hill.

To a large extent, this theory is correct. However maddening Baker’s incrementalism and deliberativeness might be—particularly with a fast-moving pathogen that is killing our friends and neighbors by the thousands—Bay State residents can at least rest assured he will never be drawn into a Twitter battle with a fellow governor, say, or that he will shape policy based on what he saw last night on Fox News. Or pick fights with journalists he believes are treating him unfairly. Or take all the credit when things go well and none of the blame when things go haywire.

In short, unlike other politicians we could mention, Charlie Baker has never caused the average citizen to wake up in a cold sweat asking themselves, “What in God’s name is he going to do today?”

His is a steady hand in a shaky world, blessedly bereft of the deadly ineptitude of Donald Trump, the self-regarding bluster of Andrew Cuomo, the heavy-handedness of Gretchen Whitmer, or the suicidal recklessness of Ron DeSantis or Brian Kemp.

By no means does this make him perfect—or even the right man in the right moment. If nothing else, the COVID-19 crisis has shown Charlie Baker to be exactly who we thought he was all along: An uber-rational, cool-headed nerd more concerned with the well-being of his constituents than his own prized place in the history books, knowing, as he must, that one naturally leads to the other—that prioritizing public health over short-term economic growth is both a noble and savvy means of teeing up a run for an unprecedented third consecutive term in office, which he has not yet ruled out.

For now, he is a dependable voice of sanity and reassurance in a society in dangerously short supply of both, and that’s good enough for me.

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