Pick a reason why Governor Charlie Baker decided against seeking a third term.
He was driven out by Donald Trump, his right-wing hijacking of the Republican Party, and the nasty primary fight that would guarantee. His wife was tired of protesters marching in front of their Swampscott home, and he chose family harmony over personal ambition. He was worn down by the unending battle against COVID-19 and sick of the political arguments over how to combat it. Or maybe, Baker’s decision is simply part of a natural generational shift that’s happening nationwide. Yet another baby boomer looked in the mirror and asked the eternal question: Is that all there is?
Whatever Baker’s motivation, the consequences for the ever-dwindling tribe of Massachusetts Republicans are clear. The Trump-loving leadership got what it wanted — Baker out of the race. But for the Massachusetts GOP, that’s also a death wish. Now these so-called leaders can watch as a party that was once valued by independent voters as an agent of balance, specifically in the corner office, sinks into total irrelevancy. No way does Geoff Diehl, a conservative, former state lawmaker and failed US Senate candidate, become the next governor of this state. Trump’s endorsement is a cement block chained to his feet; it will drag his candidacy to the bottom of the Charles.
Beyond rendering the already pathetic Massachusetts GOP even more pathetic, this is a big moment for blue state political reckoning. How far left will Massachusetts voters want the next governor to take the Commonwealth? Is the election of Boston’s new progressive mayor, Michelle Wu, the template for statewide change? So far, the announced Democratic contenders — state Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, former state senator Ben Downing, and Harvard professor Danielle Allen — are all running from the left. That will be the case as well if Attorney General Maura Healey gets into the race. That means there could be room for a candidate like former US representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, who was cast as a more centrist Democrat in his losing US Senate bid against incumbent Edward J. Markey.
As the next gubernatorial campaign moves forward without Baker, it’s interesting to ponder exactly what he and his administration stood for. For a long time, he topped polls as the most popular governor in America, and his favorability in Massachusetts was sky-high — 78 percent in August 2020. That dipped over the last year, but he was still at an impressive 56 percent, according to a recent poll.
Over two terms, Baker’s greatest skill was convincing voters he was in charge when things were going great and not responsible when they weren’t. He sold himself as a skilled manager, even though he was beset, like all governors, by public sector mismanagement. Yet his Teflon never melted, through State Police corruption, systemic breakdowns at the Registry of Motor Vehicles and the MBTA, and the deaths of at least 76 veterans from COVID-19 at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke. Although Baker got cranky at times, and occasionally teared up, he never seemed to sweat. His 6-foot-6-inch height gave him a large presence and a big, physical footprint.
But what footprint did he leave as governor? How is Massachusetts different today from when he first took office? What is Baker’s monument? What was his passion? He was always searching for the center, which is considered smart politics. But since Trump took over the Republican Party, and with the progressives’ growing influence with Democrats, that center is harder to find. Meanwhile, he was uncomfortable with what he called “virtue-signaling” — which was his definition of taking the T. At one point he made it a priority to address the opioid epidemic, but until recently, he shied away from the street-level addiction problem at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard. One thing Baker has done is reshape the state’s Supreme Judicial Court, putting a premium on diversity and life experience, and that’s something to celebrate.
But priorities like that put him ever more at odds with the party he said he wouldn’t leave. By not running again, he basically did, on his terms. Now we find out where that leaves Massachusetts.