In his long career in state government, followed by a successful stint as CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, Charlie Baker has shown himself to have the skills Massachusetts voters often look for in a Republican gubernatorial nominee: He’s a creative manager, committed to rooting out waste and finding new ways to solve problems. Unlike his mentor, Bill Weld, who didn’t sweat the details, Baker tackles them like Vince Wilfork grabbing hold of a running back. He’s not the kind of Republican who considers government the root of all problems, or an inherently flawed enterprise. What animates him is the chance to deliver the same services more efficiently.
Purely as a managerial corrective to the administrative lapses of the last two years under Governor Patrick, Baker would be a compelling choice for voters across the political spectrum. In his primary-election race against Mark Fisher, a self-made businessman running as a Tea Partier, Baker is clearly the stronger candidate. Republicans, with their long record of electoral disappointments in Massachusetts, are lucky to have him.
If Baker, now 57, secures the Republican nomination for governor for the second time in four years, he’d be a serious challenger to the usually dominant Democrats. He’s sought to draw lessons from his defeat in 2010, a race that many people considered winnable. Back then, as the financial crisis wreaked havoc on the state budget, Baker overplayed his managerial hand: He was so specific about his plans — cut 5,000 workers, slash sales and income taxes to a flat 5 percent — that he came under attack from both sides. Fiscal watchdogs found his tax cuts irresponsible, and state workers deepened their embrace of the incumbent as protection against Baker. The result was a surprisingly comfortable 6.4-point win for Patrick, after which Baker spent several years in contemplation and retrenchment.
The result is a cooler, more deliberately laid-back candidate. Always a supporter of abortion rights and gay marriage, Baker now takes pains to draw attention to his moderation on social issues. He’s not promising any big cuts, either to taxes or the budget. Times have changed, he says, and the state’s not bleeding money the way it was in 2010. Wearing jeans and an open collar, he hits the campaign trail looking more like a retired fireman than a multimillionaire health care executive.
If Baker’s sole problem in 2010 was a flawed image, he’s well on his way to turning around his fortunes. But there was another obstacle, as well: Many voters felt inspired by Patrick’s clear goals and high purpose. Beyond his personal charm, the governor was a believer in Massachusetts’ future, working to expand the state’s life-sciences cluster; touting the development of clean-energy technology as an industry of the future; promising that state government would make sure that Boston’s prosperity would spread throughout the Commonwealth. While Patrick bequeaths to the Democrats who wish to succeed him a slew of administrative challenges in the Department of Corrections, Department of Children and Families, the Health Connector, and other areas, he also gives them custody of his overarching vision. Voters may well be ready for a new hand on the tiller, but they may not be ready for a change of direction.
Baker offers nothing like a competing vision, only a nuts-and-bolts fix to the bureaucratic machine. But after all the cracks are mended, and the leaks plugged, which way does the ship sail? Mapping out a larger agenda for the state’s success will be a key challenge for Baker, if and when he secures the GOP nomination.
Mark Fisher doesn’t lack for vision, but it’s one that’s familiar to those who’ve followed the national GOP. He’s a fierce believer in unfettered enterprise and wants a much smaller government. He is personally opposed to abortion rights and gay marriage but wouldn’t seek to make them illegal. He hopes to roll back gun control, which would be a terrible mistake. He would take further steps to ensure that illegal immigrants aren’t receiving state benefits, which is OK in theory but overstates the problem: Illegal immigration isn’t a big drain on the state budget, and harping on the issue only perpetuates xenophobic anger. Fisher is on far firmer ground when he talks about removing obstacles to entrepreneurship.