Say this about Governor Charlie Baker: Pandemic or no pandemic, he remains true to his drama-free self.
Occasionally, he breaks form, as he did Wednesday, when he spoke emotionally about the death of a friend’s mother due to COVID-19, and about the telephone conversations he has been having with his elderly father. They were genuinely moving moments, partly because they were so unexpected.
If only he would bring the same emotion to coronavirus politics.
In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo makes political hearts flutter with must-see briefings that inspire essays about his commanding presence and at least one celebration of his polo shirt. Of course, Cuomo is also taking on President Trump, to cheers from fellow Democrats and the media.
Baker is a Republican — even if barely — who doesn’t want to risk Trump’s wrath. But he’s so determined to avoid theater, let alone the slightest hint of conflict with Washington, that Larry Hogan, the Republican governor of Maryland, looks electric, by comparison.
During Baker’s Tuesday briefing, there was relatively big political news, which he characteristically downplayed. He’s the only Republican governor participating in a regional council of Northeastern states that will come up with reentry plans for post-coronavirus life. That morning, Trump had peevishly tweeted his displeasure toward the “Democrat Governors,” saying, “A good old fashioned mutiny every now and then is an exciting and invigorating thing to watch, especially when the mutineers need so much from the Captain. Too easy!”
Tell the Democrat Governors that “Mutiny On The Bounty” was one of my all time favorite movies. A good old fashioned mutiny every now and then is an exciting and invigorating thing to watch, especially when the mutineers need so much from the Captain. Too easy!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 14, 2020
To that taunt, Cuomo replied, “We don’t have a king, we have a president.”
When Baker was asked if he considered himself part of a mutiny, he gave a typical Charlie answer — low-key, with a dollop of defensiveness. “If you’ve learned nothing else about the Baker-Polito administration over the last five years, it’s that we’re a lot more interested in the work than we are in the noise.”
Of course the work is important. But given the outrageousness of Trump’s attack on states’ constitutional rights, a little noise would be more than welcome. And it would have special meaning coming from a popular Republican governor like Baker. While no one wants to give a petty president any more incentive to hurt Massachusetts, some principles are worth standing up for. So far, Baker’s approval ratings for handling the coronavirus crisis are high, so he has the political capital to spare, especially in Massachusetts.
Baker’s response to the pandemic is not just a matter of style. On substance, Baker has lagged a step or two behind Mayor Marty Walsh of Boston when it comes to school closings, stay-at-home advisories, and the shutdown of nonessential businesses. The Baker administration had to be pushed to release infection numbers for each municipality. Relatives of residents of nursing homes and other senior-care facilities have also complained regarding a lack of information about infections.
Nearly half of coronavirus deaths in Massachusetts are from long-term care facilities. Three investigations are underway — including one launched by Baker — into Holyoke Soldiers Home, where at least 44 veterans have died, with 36 of those testing positive for COVID-19. Bennett Walsh, the superintendent of the facility, has been placed on paid administrative leave. But the superintendent is fighting the Baker administration’s effort to fire him, saying that state officials knew what was happening and didn’t send the help he requested. How that plays out has the potential to make headlines beyond Massachusetts.
Baker is at his best when he moves beyond his comfort zone of numbers and statistics and gets more personal and introspective. During Wednesday’s briefing, he quoted his wife as saying, “Baker men never really say what they think about anything to anyone.”
Wouldn’t you love to know what Baker really thinks about Trump and his dealings with the states during this dreadful pandemic? Not just for the sake of drama, although as Cuomo’s performances show, that can be good politics. But to assert moral leadership in a thoughtful way and benefit the public good by exposing the harmful actions of a dangerous president.