Technically, it was a debate, but think of it this way: Charles D. Baker Jr. and Mark Fisher starring in a new reality show: “Political Survivor: Republicans in the Bay State Wilds.”
In Monday’s discussion at the Globe, the two Republican gubernatorial candidates laid out starkly different strategies for how to rebuild the Grand Old Party here in Massachusetts.
As Fisher sees it, Republicans aren’t faring well here because they have failed to embrace national GOP nostrums.
“No one has used those positions,” Fisher said. “They have been afraid of them.”
Look at the success of Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, the combative Republican governor who has waged sharp ideological battles in that left-leaning state, Fisher said. Indeed, asked for a role model among current political figures, Fisher picked Walker, who survived a recall election in 2012 and, if he wins his (tight) reelection race this year, may have presidential ambitions.
Choosing a role model seemed to baffle Baker. He wanted to win that one with the Gipper, but was told to pick a contemporary political figure. Which left Baker thinking and thinking. And thinking some more. Why, one could almost hear his thoughts: Yikes, what can I say without getting myself into a pickle?
Finally he settled on Jeb Bush, the establishment Republican who is both the most electable of the current crew of GOP presidential possibilities and a man the conservative faithful consider a — gasp — RINO. That is, a Republican In Name Only, by which doctrinaire conservatives mean: not a doctrinaire conservative.
As Baker sees it, the best way for Republicans to get back in the Massachusetts mix is to develop a farm team, contest races, offer contrasts, and highlight different ideas. And as for importing conservative national GOP positions into Massachusetts?
“In any state party, what you really want is to create your own brand and your own identity,” he said. “My brand has always been . . . sort of a Bill Weld brand.” Now, technically speaking, adopting Bill Weld’s brand isn’t the same as crafting one’s own, but you get the general idea: Baker is a social moderate and fiscal conservative.
Fisher, a Tea Party fan, seems far more eager to argue with the Democrats on social issues. He doesn’t favor any accommodation for women entering abortion clinics, adopting the fanciful view that the protesters who gather there are merely grandmotherly types offering well-intentioned advice about other alternatives.
Nor does the US Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision require a government response, he said, noting that the company hadn’t objected to all types of birth control, which means — at least for its employees — that some methods will stay covered.
Baker, by contrast, doesn’t want any daylight between himself and the Democrats on those social matters, the better to keep the focus on fiscal and managerial issues, which play to his strength. He backs the state’s new law aimed at allowing unimpeded access to abortion clinics and took pains to point out that, after initially “overthinking” (read: bungling) his response to the Hobby Lobby decision, he called for using $300,000 in state dollars to provide contraception coverage for women whose employers choose not to.
Now, Fisher seems like a smart and pleasant fellow. But his view of politics is characteristic of true believers on both the right and the left: A conviction that if candidates just run clearly and unapologetically on their favored ideas, voters will realize the wisdom of that approach — and flock to them.
Don’t count on it. Baker is the only one of the two with a realistic shot of becoming governor. Still, it’s been good for voters to have Fisher on the ballot. On Monday, for example, he brought up two interesting ideas.
The first: Deep-six the state’s “inventory tax,” the portion of the corporate excise tax that applies to stocked goods. That tax, he argued, discourages firms from locating large distribution centers here. (Baker has also proposed phasing that tax out.) That business-climate concern merits a closer look. And in a discussion of the crime-lab scandal, Fisher proposed making it an obligation for state employees to report suspected misconduct or malfeasance by co-workers, just the way that public-safety officials must report suspected child abuse.
Baker’s path is the right one for the GOP — but credit Fisher with making a contribution.