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Pondering the sphinx-like Charlie Baker

Lesley Becker/Globe Staff/Adobe/File

Governor Charlie Baker already has a Rose Garden strategy: Stay away from debates and President Trump. Now, he’s getting some 2020 mentions to go along with it.

If only the most popular governor in America really stood for something. He could be a contender. But right now, Baker, a man of exceptional physical height, projects limited imaginative vision, at least any he’s willing to share in an interesting and provocative way. To paraphrase former governor Michael Dukakis: nice guy, no urgency.

Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr calls him “Tall Deval.” But Baker’s no Deval Patrick. Love him or hate him, the former Democratic governor was a passionate advocate for a core set of political values. He could also deliver a straight-up “yes” or “no” on a range of issues, from casinos to taxes. For all the political capital attached to his poll numbers, Baker is a cautious hoarder, afraid to spend down a penny of it. He has carved out the safe, dull middle ground of Massachusetts politics, save for the obvious election year death-penalty swerve to the right.

His preferred political position: extreme sphinx. During a recent appearance on WCVB’s “On the Record,” the governor wouldn’t say whether he will debate Scott Lively, his Republican primary opponent, or support the so-called millionaires tax if it makes it onto the ballot. He wouldn’t call the decision by the University of Massachusetts to acquire Mount Ida College right or wrong. Asked about sports betting, Baker labeled it complicated and open for further study.


As to whether President Trump deserves the Nobel Peace Prize if he achieves some agreement with North Korea, Baker said that, in all honesty, he hasn’t “thought about it for five seconds.” In all honesty, the honest answer would be: it’s too soon to tell.


Baker is often annoyed or “disappointed” – most recently in how the Mount Ida College deal went down and how the UMass Boston chancellor search ended. Forget about “the fierce urgency of now,” as Barack Obama might put it. Baker lives in a world where unveiling new Orange Line cars that won’t fully replace the dingy old fleet until 2021 counts as exciting progress.

As a candidate, Baker sold himself as Governor Fix-It. But from public transportation to higher education and the state police, his record on that is open to question. Still, top Democrats give him high job-performance marks, making it tough on Jay Gonzalez and Bob Massie, the two Democrats who are running for the chance to challenge the Republican governor.

During that recent “On the Record” interview, Baker also said what he’s most proud of is that “we haven’t engaged in what I call partisan name-calling and character assassination.” He also talked about government as “a distributed decision-making model.” For sure, no one wants Beacon Hill to reflect the nastiness of national politics. And compromise is a necessary tool of government. But a governor is more than a participant in a “distributed decision-making model” — or could be, with a little more courage and zeal.

For now, take Baker at his word when he says he’s not interested in national politics. That means, barring some miraculous upset, he’s heading into that mind-numbing territory known as a second term. Republicans who preceded him began thinking about the White House and ambassadorships. But if Bill Weld couldn’t get past Jesse Helms back in 1997, how can Baker get past the current crop of conservative litmus-test givers?


If he stays put as promised, endless meet-ups with House Speaker Robert DeLeo loom, broken up by the occasional bro-mantic photo-op with Mayor Marty Walsh.

And when it’s all over, people will be wondering: Was Charlie Baker a really good governor, or just a really tall one?

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.