During Sunday’s “On the Record” roundtable on WCVB-TV, Governor Charlie Baker was asked by cohost Ed Harding to identify the first Republican governor of Massachusetts: “Was it John Andrew, was it Alexander Bullock, or was it Nathaniel Banks?”
Baker didn’t hesitate. “It was Alexander Bullock,” he confidently replied.
Actually, it was Banks, who took office in 1858, having previously served as speaker of the House in both the Massachusetts Legislature and the US Congress. I was mildly surprised that the longest-serving GOP governor in the state’s history couldn’t name his first Republican predecessor. But in fairness, 19th-century Massachusetts political history isn’t everyone’s cup of tea — and Baker does have more pressing matters to focus on right now.
Here’s something else the governor doesn’t need to focus on right now: whether to run for reelection in 2022. He has plenty of time to make that decision. The election is a full 12 months away, and absolutely nothing about state government will be improved by firing the starting gun on that race this far in advance.
Yet whether Baker will or won’t run for a third term has become a topic of surpassing media interest.
“Baker’s silence on ′22 keeps others in limbo,” a front-page story in the Globe was headlined last Friday. “[I]t’s the question in Massachusetts politics,” reporter Matt Stout wrote. During Baker’s regular appearances on GBH Radio, he has repeatedly been pressed on the point by host Jim Braude, who refuses to believe that the governor could still be mulling his options. When Baker told him that the issue was complicated, Braude didn’t hide his skepticism. “It sounds like you’ve made a decision,” he retorted, “and … you’re not yet ready to announce it.”
Again and again, journalists profess to be baffled by Baker’s unwillingness to commit one way or another on seeking another four years as governor.
“What’s the argument for not running for a third term?” Channel 5′s Harding asked Baker on Sunday once the history quiz was over.
Framing the question in the negative didn’t change the governor’s answer.
“I’ve already talked quite a bit about this issue,” Baker said. “I’m pretty focused on my day job. I get that a lot of folks in the media want to know, but Joe Q. and Jane Q. Citizen don’t seem to think this is top of mind.”
He’s right. While the media generate story after story after story on Baker’s undeclared plans for next year, there is little evidence that voters lie awake at night fretting about it.
Political campaigns have grown far too long, and once the race for governor is underway, its gravitational pull will distort everything that comes within state government’s orbit. Right now, Baker is neither a candidate for reelection nor a lame duck counting down the days until he takes the Lone Walk through the State House door. He can concentrate on being governor. He doesn’t have to respond to every sling and arrow from potential political opponents. He can address policy matters as a policy maker, without his every word and deed being instantly analyzed for its political significance.
Kick off the 2022 gubernatorial race and the Legislature will get even less done than usual (OK, that may not be a bad thing). Cooperation with the Republican governor by the overwhelmingly Democratic House and Senate will grind to a halt. Baker will no longer be able to object to the media treating him as a candidate and bombarding him with campaign-related questions.
For some candidates, there are advantages to jumping early into a statewide race. It can significantly boost fund-raising. It can dissuade potential opponents from throwing their hats in the ring. It provides more time to build name recognition or assemble a seasoned political staff. None of those is a consideration for Baker, a popular incumbent who has no trouble raising money.
In Banks’s day, governors were elected annually. Political campaigns never ended; as soon as an election was over, the race for the next one began. Terms were extended to two years in 1918, but the problem persisted. In 1964, Massachusetts voters amended the state constitution to establish four-year terms, making it possible at last to dispense with never-ending campaigns.
The 2022 gubernatorial contest cannot get going until the governor announces his plans? Then here’s hoping there won’t be any announcement for a good long while. If Baker chooses to stay “focused on his day job” until next spring, so much the better for Massachusetts. Political junkies may be itching for the race to begin. The rest of us are in no hurry.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, visit bitly.com/Arguable.