Finally! Republican Governor Charlie Baker absolutely, positively denounced President Trump.
After Trump told the nation’s governors they should “dominate” protesters who are demonstrating against police brutality, Baker said: “I heard what the president said today about dominating and fighting. I know I should be surprised when I hear incendiary words like this from him, but I’m not. At so many times during these last several weeks, when the country needed compassion and leadership the most, it simply was nowhere to be found. Instead, we got bitterness, combativeness, and self-interest.”
Those welcome words made national news. But why did the usually cautious Charlie finally speak them?
On occasion, he does call out Trump. For example, he criticized the president’s delay in speaking out strongly against racism, after a white supremacist rally descended into violence in Charlottesville, Va. But Baker routinely declines to dis the president, and insists he wants to stay out of national politics. He refused to say whether impeaching Trump was the right decision. And when Senator Mitt Romney of Utah — a former Massachusetts governor — became the only Republican to vote to convict Trump on the charge of abuse of power, Baker would only say he respected Romney. He also declined to endorse Bill Weld — another former Massachusetts governor and Baker mentor — when he ran a hopeless but brave primary campaign against Trump. Even in April, when Trump used the word “mutiny” to describe Northeast governors who joined forces to discuss a post-coronavirus reentry plan, Baker, who was the only Republican in the mix, wouldn’t take on the president, saying his administration is “more interested in the work than we are in the noise.”
Now, he’s making noise — even though he wasn’t on the Monday phone call with Trump, during which Governor J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, a Democrat, called out the president for his incendiary rhetoric and was berated by Trump for doing so.
Of course, just hearing about it could anger any governor who has been fighting the coronavirus crisis with little help from the federal government and now faces civil unrest in the wake of the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. But in politics, nothing happens in a vacuum — including a decision to call out a president who is looking more unhinged every day, while the country struggles with the fallout of a pandemic and a deadly, race-inflamed encounter with police.
Baker is a very popular Republican governor, in a state that reviles Trump. That puts him in a strange political position. As popular as he is, he’s too conservative for progressive Democrats; meanwhile, his own party detests him. His fellow Republicans can’t win elections in Massachusetts and just lost two state Senate seats, bringing the GOP total down to four. Yet the tiny state Republican Party apparatus is pro-Trump. The party website features a big Trump photo and a call to Make America Great Again.
What’s a man without a party to do?
In 2018, Baker crushed his little-known Democrat opponent, Jay Gonzalez. If he chooses to run again, a contest against a higher-profile Democrat, like Attorney General Maura Healey, would be more competitive. But before he gets to that showdown, what if the Massachusetts GOP finds an ultra-conservative candidate to run against Baker in a primary? To avoid such unpleasantness, would Baker think about running as an independent?
Or is Baker, like many others, dreaming of a post-Trump world? If Democrat Joe Biden wins the presidency, he might be looking for a popular, respected, moderate Republican like Baker for a cabinet position. If Trump goes down in flames, the national Republican Party might also try to reinvent itself. With reinvention, perhaps comes opportunity for thoughtful, smart, nonextremist Republicans, including a very tall one from Massachusetts.
Whatever his motivation, it’s good that Baker took on Trump. If he chooses to use it, his voice can make a difference. When the Trump era ends, people will ask: Did you speak out? When? And what was the tipping point?