When Governor Charlie Baker showed up for the recent Profile in Courage Award ceremony for Barack Obama, he skipped the red carpet entrance. Instead, he slipped in a side door.
The Republican governor of this blue, Obama-loving state looked like he was trying to have it both ways. If so, that’s classic Charlie. The governor, after all, just told a State House gathering that was celebrating the anniversary of Israel’s independence that he gave his children bar mitzvahs at the kitchen table even though they are Protestant. In normal times, a search for middle ground is admirable. However, with President Trump in the White House, the middle ground is shrinking under Baker’s feet and not just symbolically. Revenue is shrinking with it.
In Washington, Republicans are working on a plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. Baker has already warned that the bill passed by House Republicans would cost Massachusetts $1 billion a year. That would be disastrous for the state’s bottom line. Last week, Baker told the South Shore Chamber of Commerce he’s had “many conversations about this with people in D.C.” So far, he hasn’t taken those conversations public and it’s unclear what influence he has — if any — through GOP back channels.
Meanwhile on Beacon Hill, some Democrats are talking about raising taxes to plug a serious decline in revenue that has shown up even before any federal money gets cut. With tax collections down $500 million, Baker’s official position is, of course, no new taxes. Yet he has proposed a $2,000 per worker “assessment” for employers who don’t provide adequate health insurance. And he has expressed a willingness to consider taxes on a new service like Airbnb. It’s the policy equivalent of sneaking in the back door while avoiding the red carpet.
Thought leaders like Larry Summers, the former US Treasury secretary and Harvard president, are also calling for more state investment in life sciences, infrastructure, and education. In what could be viewed as a gentle knock on Baker’s agenda or lack thereof, Summers told the Globe’s Shirley Leung that he has spoken to the governor about some of these matters, and said, “It’s much easier on the outside to feel urgency and vision than it is within the quotidian constraints of governing.”
Baker didn’t vote for Trump and has spoken out against Trump policies, like the travel ban. But when he agrees to join a commission appointed by Trump to fight drug addiction and the opioid crisis, he also has to answer for related presidential decisions. For example, if fighting opioid addiction is so important to him, he should also speak out against a Trump budget proposal that would slash the drug policy office budget by 95 percent.
When Baker was criticized for not showing up at women’s marches at the beginning of the year, I defended him, arguing that he should be judged on results, not rallies. If Massachusetts loses revenue because of health care legislation, that is a result. Baker doesn’t have a vote in Washington, but he does have a voice, if he chooses to use it.
Back at home, Baker will be judged on preserving health care as we know it, fixing the T, supporting public education at all levels, and investing in the next economic initiative for Massachusetts. They all require money. Baker can’t just manage his way to results.
The governor is popular, and so far no big-name Democratic challenger is expected to jump in the race. Still, from Senator Elizabeth Warren to Attorney General Maura Healey, Massachusetts is ground zero for Trump resistance. Baker can duck into a Profile in Courage ceremony, but eventually he will have to really pick a side.