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Republican Charlie Baker is stealing a key progressive issue

Charlie Baker has seized the issue of income inequality.ASsociated Press

Republicans don’t win in Massachusetts because the state is liberal and they’re conservative. The solution? Become progressive. I know, it feels like cheating. The Democratic Party is left-wing and the GOP right, and that’s the way things are supposed to be. But on a number of key issues, Charlie Baker — a very safe bet to be the GOP’s nominee for governor — is starting to look an awful lot like the very Democrats he might be facing.

Baker is pro-choice. He supports same-sex marriage. He thinks global climate change is real and favors renewable energy — including (in a reversal from four years ago) Cape Wind.

Most striking, however, has been his embrace of what has emerged as the signal lefty issue: income inequality. The concern surged to prominence with the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement and has since been a national focus by Democrats such as Senator Elizabeth Warren and President Barack Obama. The basic argument is that there has been a “hollowing out” of the middle class, that the country is becoming increasingly divided between rich and poor. Connected to that is the idea that the American Dream — the opportunity to succeed — is ever less available to all.


The issue itself is debatable. Much of the data that underlies it is drawn from the last few years, years marked by the Great Recession. No question, jobs have been lost, wages have been squeezed, and family finances have become more fragile. That’s what happens during recessions. As the economic recovery takes hold, we may well find the American Dream restored.

On the other hand, there’s a credible argument that something deeper is at play. Rapid changes in technology have made obsolete many jobs that once required only basic skills and education, and that trend seems to be accelerating. Good jobs are available, but only for the highly skilled and highly adaptable. Others are increasingly out of luck, which may be the reason so many have now dropped out of the workforce altogether.

Whether the worrisome plight of the middle class is a function of recession or reflects something more structural, Baker has seized upon it, sounding on occasion like a full-throated populist. His acceptance speech at the Republican convention closed with a litany of those left behind: “single moms,” “parents who need good schools,” those facing “the sky-high cost of a college education” and people “who live on fixed incomes.” At a forum in late May he voiced a “two Americas” message reminiscent of one-time vice-presidential nominee John Edwards: “I think the most important thing we need to realize is that we very much have two economies, we have two educational systems, and we have two kinds of communities.” And he supports increasing the minimum wage.


I can hear the Democrats now: Hey, he stole our issue!

Indeed he did.

It’s smart stuff. I’ve written before that Massachusetts seems to be taking a sharp turn toward progressivism, our Scott Brown infatuation long behind us. With only 11 percent of the electorate registered as Republicans, Baker has to figure out how to attract a good number of Democrats and the unenrolled. Middle-class issues make a good lure.

But it’s smart in another way too: It boxes Democrats in.

If Democrats care so much about income inequality, Baker might ask, why have things gotten so much worse over the last eight years? The obvious answers: Maybe they really didn’t care that much or maybe they don’t have the ideas necessary to solve the problem. Either way, he can argue, more of the same is hardly a solution.

The Democratic response will be that Baker is just posturing, cleverly adopting a populist tone even as he holds to old Republican ways. In office, they’ll say, he’ll quickly shed the campaign rhetoric.


Even so, Baker’s progressive clothes give him appeal. Incumbent parties always face a conundrum: If there are still serious problems after they’ve been in power for a while, they need to find someone at fault. Elsewhere, it’s easy to lay the responsibility on your political opponents. Here in Massachusetts, where Democrats have had near-absolute control for eight years, there’s no one to blame but yourself. It makes for a powerful argument for change.

Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.