If you tried to engineer the ideal governor for modern Massachusetts — combining the technocratic know-how and public-spiritedness of Michael Dukakis with the casual quick-study confidence of William Weld, along with the sensible instincts of the early version Mitt Romney — you’d get Charlie Baker. He’s even picked up some of Deval Patrick’s grass-roots touch. Baker’s smart, ultra-competent, doesn’t seem too full of himself, and appears to be in government for the right reasons. He’s one of the most popular governors in the country. Even as a Republican in true-blue Massachusetts, he maintains approval ratings around 70 percent.
He’s not just likable — by common consensus, he’s honorable. So perhaps he’s a shoo-in for reelection in 2018. But there’s a question about his leadership that is almost never asked: Is he courageous? If he were, wouldn’t he be speaking out more forcefully about the moral mess that is today’s Republican Party? To put the question bluntly: Will Charlie Baker ever be bold enough to address the big stinking elephant carcass in the room?
I’ve long wondered whether Baker would leave the GOP and declare himself an independent — as Maine’s Angus King did when he left the Democrats and then won two terms as governor in the 1990s before being elected US senator in 2012. Even before Trumpism, Baker had little in common with the national GOP: He supports abortion rights and gay rights; he favors expanded health insurance coverage; he’s not a climate-change denier; he works in good faith with Democrats. But now, as his party is led by a man who is everything Baker is not — a president who has no sense of decency or humility, who doesn’t understand the details of the public policy he rails about, who has even been reluctant to repudiate followers who march for white supremacy — how can Baker abide it? And what should he do? If he won’t break with the GOP, will he fight to reclaim it?
Boldness has not been Baker’s strong suit. Unlike President Trump, he’s careful about what he says in public. Yet it’s been clear since early 2016 that he was appalled by Trump’s candidacy. Four days before the New Hampshire primary, he endorsed New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. “My view all along on this was to not get involved, but I have been concerned about the slide of the party,” he told the Globe. You can’t say he didn’t see what was coming: “I don’t believe Mr. Trump has the depth of experience, the temperament, or the seriousness of purpose to be our next president,” he said.
But then “the slide of the party” only intensified as Trump went on to win the GOP nomination and then the presidency. Baker told reporters on Election Day that he declined to vote for either Trump or Hillary Clinton, leaving the top of the ballot blank. Now it’s the slide of the nation into dysfunction, discord, and disgrace we should be worrying about. Yet, for the most part, Baker has kept his head down, digging into the details of Massachusetts governance. He did write a letter in January to the majority leader of the US House of Representatives urging responsible action as Congress sought to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. He noted that 96.4 percent of the residents of Massachusetts were insured in 2015, the highest rate in the country. He was surely relieved when efforts to repeal the ACA failed in the Senate. But how could Baker — who is one of the most knowledgeable persons in the United States about the complexities of health care and insurance — be anything but repulsed by the way the Republican Congress and president flailed away, with bad faith and zealotry, at the demon they called Obamacare?
I can hear the reaction of the typical worldweary political consultant to the notion Baker should buck his own party. Why take that risk? What would he gain? He would alienate some Republican voters and make an enemy of the president, perhaps complicating his job of governing the Commonwealth. Voters here know he’s as unTrump-like as any Republican could be. He’s popular already! Don’t fix what ain’t broke.
That’s the safe course. Consultants always urge expedience, never courage. But anyone who has spent any time talking about politics and government with Baker — as I have on a couple of occasions — knows he has devoted his entire career to bipartisan problem-solving, not wrecking-ball Republicanism. The party has effectively left him, and the tradition of moderate New England Republicanism, in the dust. He could easily win reelection as an independent — only about 11 percent of Massachusetts voters register as Republicans anyway.
Most likely, his fonder dream is to build Republican Party strength in the Commonwealth. He’ll never do that, though, without a national effort to pull the GOP back to the center.
If he is determined to call himself a Republican, he ought to fight to reform his party. I can imagine him — if he were acting from conscience instead of caution — holding a “take our party back” rally with other pragmatic Republicans, like Vermont’s governor, Phil Scott, and Maryland’s governor, Larry Hogan. They could bring along some members of the Ripon Society, a think tank founded in Cambridge to advance centrist Republican ideas, whose 1964 manifesto rings even truer now: “We believe that the future of our party lies not in extremism, but in moderation.” Here’s a slogan they could put on their hats: Make the Republican Party Great Again.Dave Denison was the founding editor of CommonWealth magazine. He’s now associate editor at The Baffler. Send comments to email@example.com. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.