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OPINION

The curious case of Charlie Baker’s State of the State address

It’s curious to me that the governor thinks judgment other than his own is a bad thing. But if Baker prefers curiosity, here it is.

Governor Baker delivered his State of the Commonwealth address on Tuesday.
Governor Baker delivered his State of the Commonwealth address on Tuesday.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Riffing off a line attributed to Walt Whitman, and recycled in a television show, Governor Charlie Baker urged Massachusetts voters to “Be curious — not judgmental” in his annual State of the State address Wednesday.

It’s curious to me that the governor thinks judgment other than his own is a bad thing. But if Baker prefers curiosity, here it is: Will vaccine rollout misfires, confusing criteria for business lockdowns, a horrific COVID-19 death toll in nursing homes, and other pandemic-related miscues finally reverse voter judgment about this Republican governor? Baker, now in the middle of his second term, hasn’t said if he will seek reelection. But so far, he remains popular, leaving Democrats to argue over the best way to beat him if he runs again.

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The key to Baker’s success to date: When it comes to policy, he understands Massachusetts Democrats better than they understand themselves. Progressive voices from the left dominate Twitter and intra-party debate. But a SurveyUSA Market Research poll, conducted last August of 558 likely Democratic primary voters, describes a party of centrists or “pragmatists,” said Liam Kerr, organizer of the Priorities for Progress initiative, a political action committee aimed at party unity rather than ideological division (368 were registered Democrats; 190 were unenrolled or independent voters).

To beat Baker, party activists need to “take the blinders off,” Kerr said in an interview. If they do, they will see that voters who were asked to think about the next governor’s race overwhelmingly said they preferred a candidate “who will work to find common ground”over someone who is “uncompromising in their progressive stances” — by 81 percent to 14 percent. When asked to consider the 2022 gubernatorial election, voters also prioritized management skills over someone who shares their values — 57 percent to 36 percent. Even more eye-opening, more than 60 percent of these voters said that if Baker switched his party registration to Democrat — they would vote for him.

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This survey is six months old and doesn’t take into account more recent unhappiness with Baker’s handling of the coronavirus. Nor does it factor in recent Baker vetoes involving abortion access and climate change bills and his watering down of police reform legislation. But at that moment in time, Baker was delivering what Democratic primary voters wanted — politically moderate leadership and the illusion of efficient state government.

On policy, I bet Baker is still in a relative sweet spot. His vetoes riled up party activists but probably won’t change many regular-voter minds. When he vetoed a bill that allowed girls who are 16 and 17 to get abortions without parental consent, he was on the same side as 40 percent of Massachusetts voters, according to polling done by the Suffolk University Political Research Center. Lawmakers ultimately overrode that veto. But Baker was able to exert control over a wide-ranging police accountability bill by loosening restrictions on facial recognition and dropping a provision that would have shifted oversight of officer training to a new civilian-controlled board. In his State of the State address, he touted the final product as another illustration of common ground.

The illusion spun by Baker about his management skills should be his greatest weakness. Yet somehow he has escaped accountability, from the bureaucratic breakdown at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, which contributed to the deaths of seven motorcyclists in New Hampshire who were killed by a truck driver whose license should have been suspended, to the bureaucratic breakdown at the state-run Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, which led to the COVID-19 deaths of at least 76 veterans. But he qualifies as a real political Houdini if that holds true despite the mucked-up vaccine rollout; the lack of state leadership when it comes to getting kids back to school; the MBTA service cuts put in place despite plenty of federal money to keep trains and buses running; and ongoing problems connected to COVID-19 related unemployment claims.

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Meanwhile, in what must be music to Baker’s ears, some Massachusetts Republicans want him censured for expressing support for a second Senate impeachment trial of Donald Trump. Is there any better way to shore up support in a blue state? Yet being attacked by the right-wing fringe of his own party shouldn’t be enough to shield Baker from legitimate questions about his leadership during admittedly trying times. Baker can’t wish that judgment day away. If he runs again, Democrats will have to find a way to make him face up to it.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.