Now it’s really over between Charlie Baker and the Republican Party.
It’s one thing to get behind transgender rights and other social liberalisms. But backing new taxes? For conservatives, that’s the ultimate red line. Yet Baker crossed it in a budget that calls for more spending on education, transportation, and climate change mitigation — and more taxes to support that agenda.
So much for 2020. With President Trump looking a little more vulnerable, moderates like Maryland Governor Larry Hogan — another Republican running a blue state — are gaining some presidential altitude. But after last spring’s shout-out from Never-Trumper Bill Kristol, Baker is MIA from the current mention list. The most popular governor in America is essentially a man without a party to call home. He’s way too liberal for Republican primary voters, yet still much too conservative to get anywhere as a Democrat.
“Charlie’s too far left to be a viable Republican presidential candidate who can win primaries. That’s the bottom line. That’s already where he was. Raising taxes cements that position,” said Rob Gray, a Republican strategist and media consultant.
It also cements the chance to be something more than a tall governor with high approval ratings. With this proposal, Baker gets to be a governor of biggish ideas, some of which will make him a little less popular, but a lot more interesting. And lucky for him, he seems unafflicted by Potomac Fever: “I have always been pretty clear that my interests with respect to elective office have been focused on Massachusetts,” he said via e-mail — which is pretty much what he always says. Trying to wheedle some deeper thoughts out of him, I asked about the Hogan headlines and what they mean for the next election cycle. “Should be a pretty wild 22 months,” he offered up.
Classic low-key Baker — and a bit of a disappointment after an elated election night promise that his second term would be “nonstop, pedal-to-the-metal, let it rock.”
Who knew that meant raising taxes?
Conservatives saw it coming. When Baker was running for governor in 2014 and refused to sign the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist warned, “There’s only one reason not to take the pledge and that’s because you want to raise taxes and if you’re not going to do it, you put in writing.”
Last summer, Baker signed a payroll tax increase to fund family and medical leave. But it wasn’t a tax, he said, because it paid for a “new service” and wasn’t used to balance the budget. With a budget proposal that would raise real estate transfer taxes by 50 percent and levy a new tax on opioid drug manufacturers and e-cigarettes, Baker’s no longer pretending this isn’t about revenue-raising. All it took was the confidence that comes with winning 1.7 million votes in last November’s gubernatorial election — and perhaps an acknowledgment that there’s absolutely no place for him anyway in today’s GOP. The party he signed up for is an ideologically rigid corpse, compliments of Trump and his crew of Republican enablers. Even in Massachusetts, Jim Lyons, a conservative who lost his bid for reelection to the Massachusetts House last fall, beat out Baker’s choice to head the Massachusetts Republican State Committee.
Still, when Trump’s GOP is finally dead and buried, someone will have to reinvent the party he destroyed. Why not someone like Baker? The country’s politics are already trending away from Trump’s base. According to a recent report by the Pew Research Center, young people, including Republicans, are shifting left on social issues and on what they believe government should deliver. That next generation of voters will redefine both parties, or maybe decide to create a new one.
In the meantime, Massachusetts is an excellent laboratory for political experimentation, with maximum national exposure. Baker has not ruled out a third term. As he starts his second, he seems focused on building a legacy by trying to do right by Massachusetts.
Too bad his party wants nothing to do with that.