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OPINION

Move out from the safe middle ground, Charlie Baker

He should seize the moment and use his voice to try to realign the values of his party.

As Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker nears the end of his term in office, he spent the day at the Big E Fair in West Springfield, Sept. 22. Baker stands with his wife Lauren as the national anthem was played.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Pop quiz: Why won’t Governor Charlie Baker criticize Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida for sending 50 migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard?

1. What DeSantis did is fine. After all, those migrants ended up in a better place, didn’t they?

2. He despises what DeSantis did but doesn’t want to further antagonize a Republican base that already despises Baker for his moderate politics.

3. He isn’t running for president.

You know Baker’s answer: “I’m not running for president. Why engage in what is obviously a presidential debate?” he said on GBH’s “Boston Public Radio” show.

But I’m going with Answer 2.

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As he eases out of the governor’s office, this would be the perfect time for Baker to take on the worst inclinations of his party. On one hand, not doing so is perfectly on brand. Baker is the master of dispassionate politics. Sure, he occasionally gets worked up over something like revenge porn.

But on most matters, he finds the safe middle ground, even when there shouldn’t be one — not if you have principles. For example, while he has spoken out against Donald Trump, he has never called out his party for embracing Trump or for zealously promoting a heartless and polarizing agenda on issues like immigration. And now, by not calling out DeSantis, could it also be that Baker is somehow trying to maintain viability with a party that, even in Massachusetts, considers him a Republican in Name Only?

One thing he’s passionate about is denying any interest in national politics, and it’s hard, if not impossible, to see a path for him. But a corner of Baker’s political brain must recoil at the idea that someone like DeSantis is on a fast track to the White House.

There’s DeSantis, described in a new Vanity Fair profile as “calculated,” “aloof,” and “cold-blooded,” not to mention wildly unlikeable, winning the hearts and minds of not just the populist MAGA base but also of big Republican donors. And then there’s Baker, the most popular governor in America, caught between two fierce political forces. He’s far too liberal for the party of Trump and DeSantis and far too conservative for the party of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and “the Squad.” While there are voters in between, the political extremists, especially on the Republican side, rule the primary voting schedule. Being stuck in that political no-man’s-land must be a real bummer.

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“Everyone” says the private sector is where Baker will end up, and maybe it is. Meanwhile, he’s popping up in bizarrely interesting political places. In August, he participated in a roundtable event on abortion rights in Boston, alongside Vice President Harris. Last week, he was in New York, talking about climate change at a summit sponsored by the Clinton Global Initiative. Those activities would seem to cancel out any viability in today’s GOP. So why not seize the moment and use his voice to try to realign the values of his party? That doesn’t mean he has to play the DeSantis game of low blows and crude tricks. But it does mean picking a side and standing up for principle, especially when a fellow Republican governor is willing to use 50 human beings seeking refuge in this country to advance his presidential aspirations — at Baker’s expense.

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Baker did call the luring of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard “a really lousy thing to do” and said he was “very glad” that a Texas sheriff opened up an investigation into the matter. He’s right when he says both parties have failed to address the immigration crisis. He’s right when he says the national immigration system is “screwed up.” He’s right when he says “The states can’t fix it.”

His observation of the political maneuvering on both sides is correct: “I’ve been watching Republicans and Democrats that are running for president tee off on each other. That doesn’t help solve the problem, OK? I know it helps everybody deal with their base and all the rest, but what we really need is immigration reform in this country.”

But by refusing to call out DeSantis directly, he also looks like he’s trying to placate the immigrant-hating Republican base. It makes you wonder if Baker has really accepted “I’m not running for president” as his last words on the subject.


Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.