Not so long ago, it seemed as if Governor Charlie Baker risked seeing his reputation as able public manager become collateral damage in this country’s COVID-19 calamity. The man who had once leveled harsh criticism at his gubernatorial predecessor over a faulty health care website saw his team’s own vaccination-scheduling Web portal land like . . . well, the Hindenburg at Lakehurst springs to mind.
But on Tuesday, when President Joe Biden held a virtual come-let-us-brainstorm-together event with those he deemed “six of the best governors” on the vaccination efforts, Baker was there at the figurative table. His inclusion validates an impressive comeback from a long, frustrating struggle. Now, one of the failures — the horrendous and perhaps criminal mismanagement by a Baker appointee at the state-run veterans nursing home in Holyoke — is a blot that can’t be erased from the record. With that said, however, Baker and his team have fought their way forward from the doleful days when their inoculation-organization efforts were widely panned.
That dogged dig-in determination has paid off. Scroll through the various vaccine trackers that compare state-by-state efforts, and you’ll find Massachusetts is always at or near the top. According to Bloomberg, of the 23 states with populations of 5 million or more, the Bay State ranks number one for first doses administered per capita and also leads on a per capita basis for two doses.
When he spoke at Tuesday’s virtual event, the once-bruised Baker began his remarks by noting that among all states, only sparsely populated Vermont (61.9 percent) is ahead of Massachusetts (60.6) when it comes to initial doses — and that he was determined to catch up. When it comes to the fully vaccinated percentage of the population among all states, Massachusetts, at 43 percent, trails Connecticut, at 45 percent, and, oh-so-narrowly, Vermont, at 43.4 percent.
Now mull the messaging and mutual benefit of Tuesday’s event. Biden’s success in rolling out the national vaccination program, particularly in contrast to the chaos that reigned during the Trump administration, has brought a reassuring note of competence back to the national government.
But even as Biden demonstrates that the federal government can work well in the hands of a knowledgeable, pragmatic president, congressional Republicans, reverting to their Obama-years playbook, are hoping to bring an iron curtain of obstruction down on any further accomplishments.
Sounding like he did back in 2010 when he declared his principal goal was to render Barack Obama a one-term president, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell recently said that “100 percent of our focus is on stopping this new administration.”
How well that serves national Republicans or the Senate leader of their ranks remains to be seen. It won’t serve the country well, of course — but that has never particularly mattered to the Machiavellian McConnell. (An aside about what plausibly constitutes a willingness to work across the aisle: For a party that in four years has lost the House, the presidency, and the Senate to say to a new administration, “We’ll consider meeting you a quarter of the way” doesn’t stake a persuasive claim.) It helps Biden, however, to be in the bipartisan company of governors who, like him, are focused on getting things done.
It also helps the Republican governors who participated in the event. Baker and Larry Hogan of Maryland were out of favor with the White House during the Trump years. As he mulls a third term, Baker remains at odds with the Trump faction of the Massachusetts GOP, whose activists have made the Republican State Committee their redoubt. From there, party chairman Jim Lyons, who couldn’t even hold his Andover rep’s seat two years ago, pursues (warning: sarcasm alert) smart, tent-expanding initiatives like perpetrating Trump’s stolen-election nonsense and scheming to eliminate the ex officio slots the governor, lieutenant governor, and GOP legislative leaders have on the state committee.
Baker may well get a primary challenge from that wing. But in a state where Republicans are only a small part of the electorate, his strength is with independents and moderate Democrats. Ultimately, enjoying Biden’s embrace underscores the (recovered) reputation that underlies Baker’s appeal: that of a smart, serious, problem-solving governor who has made good on his pledge to work in bipartisan fashion.