One has to possess undauntable optimism — or a very short memory — to be a cheerful Bay State Republican.
Ron Kaufman, Massachusetts Republican National Committeeman since the late political Pleistocene, seems to benefit from both. When I caught up with him at Saturday’s state GOP convention, Kaufman sounded every bit as hopeful about his party’s prospects as . . . well, as he had professed to be four years ago.
“Four things really matter: the candidates, the climate, the campaign, and the message,” Kaufman exclaimed. “The climate is awesome.” Why, “if Mitt had this climate, he’d be president today.”
Hmm. Just as a historical note, I recall a platoon of conservative pundits asserting that, given the struggling economy, the Mittster was on his way to a landslide in 2012. Poor George Will, who numbered among those ranks, later wrote: “Romney’s melancholy but useful role has been to refute those determinists who insist that economic conditions are almost always decisive.”
Ah, but why quibble about campaigns gone by? Kaufman’s basic point is a fair one: The problems that have beset the state recently provide Republicans with some good arguments that it’s time to end one-party rule on Beacon Hill.
What’s more, four of the six constitutional offices don’t have an incumbent seeking reelection. And though little-known, the GOP’s candidates for two of those posts — John Miller, the endorsee for attorney general, and Mike Heffernan, the hopeful for treasurer — are serious people with successful private-sector careers.
Let’s skip the pointless post of lieutenant governor. At the ticket’s top, avers Kaufman, Charles D. Baker Jr. is a better candidate this time out. That too is true — though given Baker’s 2010 campaign, there was abundant room to improve.
As for Baker himself, his message on Saturday reduced to Mike Dukakis’s conceptual conceit from the 1988 Democratic National Convention: This election isn’t about ideology, it’s about competence.
History records that that notion didn’t work out particularly well for Dukakis. It may prove more effective on a state level, but judging from Saturday, the formulation doesn’t exactly conduct electric excitement. Which is to say, Baker’s convention presentation was about as toothsome as unflavored tofu.
Still, the convention did frame one matter that should concern fiscal moderates. Baker chided Beacon Hill Democrats several times on taxes, asking at one point if conventioneers were “tired of the constant hunt for new revenues,’’ asserting at another that “state government doesn’t lack resources, it lacks imagination,” and promising that he would find “faster, better, cheaper ways to get things done.”
No doubt many would welcome a determined focus on reform; the possible savings are significant. Still, in the last 25 years, we’ve seen times when economic downturns have led to such sharp revenue declines that balancing the budget through reforms and cuts alone would have had deep and damaging impacts on important programs.
Unlike last time, Baker hasn’t taken a “no new taxes” pledge in this campaign. Does that mean there’s a point at which he’d seek new revenue to forestall truly harmful cuts, perhaps to things like K-12 education or health care or UMass or the Department of Children and Families? On Saturday, I asked whether tough fiscal times would ever lead him there.
“Sometimes you can take advantage of that to pursue reforms, which is what we did in the early 1990s,” Baker replied. “The greatest opportunity you ever have to think differently about the way an organization works is when you have a revenue problem.”
That’s true about reform opportunities. But it is also true that, though Bill Weld didn’t raise revenues to solve the budget problems of the early 1990s, he benefitted from several large tax hikes passed before he took office. When I reminded Baker of that history, he basically shrugged it off, saying many had thought Weld would also have to raise taxes. So is he saying that he would always do all the necessary budget-balancing by cutting spending?
“There’s a difference between a cut and a reform,” Baker rejoined, launching yet again into his spiel about how fiscal crises are opportunities to find better ways of doing things.
If you believe that continuous rethinking and reform is important in the public sector, but also recognize that reform isn’t a cure-all in bad fiscal times, that answer is only half-right. As such, it’s a disappointing sidestep — at least for those who value what state government does.Scot Lehigh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.