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.

One-Party State

A fellow named Edward Markey has just been elected senator by the good folks of Massachusetts, who picked Markey to succeed John Kerry, who surrendered his seat in February to be secretary of state.

The run-up to yesterday’s special election yielded extremely limited interest all the way through, with the commonwealth’s attention being largely focused on the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath.  Indeed, awareness of Tuesday’s vote was so tepid that both candidates were compelled to expend considerable resources simply to remind voters which day the election was to be held.

While we could drone on ad infinitum about how depressing it is that Americans take their most sacred rights so much for granted that they sometimes forget about them entirely, the fact is that the Massachusetts election never carried anything in the way of real tension or urgency, its result never much in doubt.

Markey’s opponent, Gabriel Gomez, was by no means lacking in positive appeal.  The son of immigrants, Gomez graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy to become an aircraft carrier pilot and later a Navy SEAL.  After retiring from the Armed Forces, he embarked upon a business career that has proved quite profitable.

However, Gomez was persistently (and fatally) handicapped in the campaign by his most marked characteristic of all:  He is a Republican.

What is worse, his opponent, Markey, is a Democrat.

Considerable scholarship has been done on the eternally complicated balancing act that is required for a Republican to win elected office in a state such as Massachusetts, where a highly disproportionate number of voters are registered with the other team.

The “trick” is simple enough:  Pledge to cut taxes and not restrict the rights to abortion and same-sex marriage.  As in so much of America, to be socially liberal and fiscally conservative allows one a fighting chance for electoral success regardless of party affiliation.

All the same, events such as Scott Brown’s victory in the 2010 vote to replace Ted Kennedy are exceptions to the rule.  In the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Democrats outnumber Republicans by a score of 128-32; and in the State Senate, 32-4.

What I would argue, in the context of the special election just past, is that far more alarming than the inherent disadvantage in being a Massachusetts Republican is the inherent advantage in being a Massachusetts Democrat.

Case in point:  What was arguably the most substantively damning charge against Markey was simultaneously the most advantageous.

That is, the assertion that in his 37 years as a U.S. congressman, Markey had not once bucked the party line on any major legislation on any major issues.  Time and again, he proved a reliable rubber stamp for Democrats in Washington, with seemingly no interest in assuming a contrary view.

According to conventional wisdom, such a record is supposed to be the kiss of death.  In every last opinion poll, Americans claim to value nothing so much as bipartisanship, and will vote with happy abandon for those who credibly vow to “cross the aisle” in the interest of “getting things done.”

This week in Massachusetts?  Not so much.  In a state with more than three registered Democrats for every registered Republican, compromise is all well and good, but you know what is even better?  Liberalism, that’s what.

The people of Massachusetts were told a vote for Markey was a vote for every Democratic Party policy in the book, and they responded, “Yes, please.”

On an individual basis, this is entirely rational.  I cannot hear myself dissuading someone from voting for a candidate with whom he or she agrees on practically every issue.

Yet I despair, nonetheless, that the “D” at the end of a candidate’s name makes his or her ultimate victory more or less inevitable, just as it is still very much true that the word “Kennedy” at the end of a candidate’s name ensures the same.

This trend, as long as it persists, tends to engender a sense of entitlement amongst its benefactors and a sense of bitterness amongst those not already in the club.  Members of the first group are given every last benefit of the doubt by John Q. Voter, while those in the latter are provided none at all, and must prove themselves far more rigorously as a consequence.

Somehow this does not seem fair.  No election should be a foregone conclusion, not least on the basis of party affiliation.  No instance of the mass exercise of the right to vote should be so assured as to empower a lowly scribbler to muse upon the meaning of the results—as this particular scribbler has—before said results have even trickled in.