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OPINION

The pandemic exposed Charlie Baker’s Republican heart

His fiscally conservative Republicanism softened by an aura of social liberalism is what voters wanted in good times. They may not want it in bad times.

Governor Baker’s decision to abandon the state’s blueprint for vaccine distribution in favor of entrusting the job to a handful of private companies has done the most harm to his image as a can-do manager.
Governor Baker’s decision to abandon the state’s blueprint for vaccine distribution in favor of entrusting the job to a handful of private companies has done the most harm to his image as a can-do manager.Globe staff photo illustration; photo by John Tlumacki/Globe staff; Firn/Adobe

Abandonment of a mass vaccination plan developed by the state in favor of a privatized solution. A push to starve public transit, despite a huge influx of federal funding. Delight in demonizing unions.

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed Governor Charlie Baker for what he is: a small-government Republican whose conservatism on the fiscal front is softened by an aura of social liberalism. That’s what Baker voters wanted in good times. They may not want it in bad times, when smart, compassionate, and bigger-thinking government has never been more important to their lives.

From the perspective of the national GOP, Baker is, of course, a hopeless RINO — Republican in name only — who got zero support in the presidential straw poll taken during the recent Conservative Political Action Conference. Yet here in Massachusetts, Baker’s politics are starting to look a little redder than they did when Donald Trump was president and the governor could separate himself from his party simply by separating himself from Trump. Now his instinct to sit on federal stimulus money stands in sharp contrast to President Biden’s belief in the power of government to move the country forward. Meanwhile, COVID-19 continues to draw a bright line between a more progressive agenda and Baker’s belief in a more limited role for the public sector.

Democrats are starting to position themselves around the idea that voters want more than Baker’s constrained definition of what government gives them. In the 2014 gubernatorial election, Baker’s campaign slogan was, “Let’s aim high. Let’s be great, Massachusetts,” noted Ben Downing, a former state senator and the first Democrat to launch a run for governor in 2022. To Downing, that implied that greatness was something simply to be managed. “To be a good governor requires day-to-day-management and a vision, a broad set of goals,” he said.

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Baker’s decision to abandon the state’s blueprint for vaccine distribution in favor of entrusting the job to a handful of private companies has done the most harm to his image as a can-do manager. Because of a botched vaccine roll-out tied to the privatization decision, Baker is being called to testify for a second time before a legislative oversight committee next week.

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“What you have is the worst of both worlds — a sometimes capricious and heavy-handed state action combined with privatization and lack of supervision over private contracts,” said state Senator Eric Lesser, a Democrat from Longmeadow, who, during the first hearing, grilled Baker about vaccine website crashes that have since been addressed.

Yet Baker’s push to privatize vaccine distribution should come as no surprise. He started his career as codirector of the Pioneer Institute, which is a fierce critic of public sector unions and a champion of privatization. As governor, Baker wanted to privatize bus lines on the T and backed charter school expansion. In both cases, union pushback thwarted his efforts. But with COVID-19 came expansive powers and an ability to take on unions. The T is led by Steve Poftak, another Pioneer Institute alumnus, who has leveraged the threat of layoffs against service cuts.

The teachers unions may have squandered any good will they might have with the public by continually resetting benchmarks for their return to in-person learning. But it’s also true that Baker squandered the opportunity to show leadership last summer when it came to devising a plan for reopening Massachusetts schools. Such deference to local control is another aspect of the small-government Republican mindset. Now it’s open warfare between teachers and the Baker administration. But there was a moment when more clarity from the state could have helped everyone who wants students back in the classroom.

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There’s no time in modern history when government and public policy have affected people’s lives in more dramatic fashion. COVID-19 has touched everyone in some way, and how government responds during this crisis will be judged by future generations. Whether or not he seeks a third term, that will be Baker’s legacy. It hinges on his ability to reject his natural instinct and think outside the small-government Republican box.


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