It’s easy to forget now, but America’s most popular governor was hardly a rock star when he was elected in 2014.
In fact, more people that year voted for someone who wasn’t Charlie Baker.
Four years and one landslide later, Baker has his mandate. But he’s still never convincingly answered one pesky question:
What does Charlie Baker stand for?
It’s something his critics have harped on: What’s his vision? What’s his signature issue? What does he care about? Baker’s popularity appears to have grown not from some grand plan or dramatic policy proposal, but from trying to fix what’s broken — whether that’s opioid addiction, DCF or the T — without going out too far on any particular limb. We elected Mr. Fix-it — maybe the fact that he didn’t promote himself to Mr. Build-it was part of the appeal.
But if you’re narrowly elected by a plurality of voters, isn’t Baker’s first-term course — patch the boat, don’t rock it — what you ought to do?
We live in an America where the President treats a negative-3 three million vote margin as a mandate to do essentially anything that emerges from his ghoulish advisors’ fever dreams, so this is hard to fathom. But believe it or not, governance can actually be a good-faith effort to reflect the policy preferences and priorities of most of the people you work for without infringing on the rights of the rest.
In 2018, that notion — that government should prioritize not the politician’s personality or preferences but those of the citizenry — should count as vision, too.
In his victory speech Tuesday night, after introductions by two Democratic mayors, Baker seemed to lay this bare:
“You told us to focus on the work and not the noise,” Baker said, and rattled off a list of what he took to be the mission that Massachusetts voters had sent him to carry out: Work across the aisle. Chase the best ideas. Find common ground. Fix the stuff that’s broken. Treat people with respect.
More than any specific accomplishment or idea, that’s the reputation Baker rode all the way from barely beating Martha Coakley to a roughly 34-point coronation against Jay Gonzalez.
Now, as one of a tiny handful of prominent elected officials from the president’s own party who have resisted the weird allure of Trump’s demagoguery, he’s uniquely positioned help bring our politics back to something approaching sanity.
The President’s approval among Republicans consistently hovers around 90 percent. But surely there are conservative-leaning voters all over the country who, outside the pitched tribalism of today’s politics, would choose a different path. They would, with the right leadership, have seen Trump’s anti-immigrant closing argument before these midterms for what they were: So obviously racist that even Fox News pulled one of the associated television ads.
Those voters won’t listen to Elizabeth Warren or any other liberal lion. But they might listen to someone like Charlie Baker. At the end of his speech on Tuesday night, Baker boiled his approach to governance down to three words: Collaborative, purposeful and humble.
That’s why the most dispiriting thing Baker did during the campaign had nothing to do with apparent patronage or whichever rake the State Police stepped on most recently. No, it was his strange, awkward debate flub on a straightforward question about who he was supporting in the race for Senate — an episode that ended with him finally copping to a planned vote for noted Trump enthusiast and no-hope Warren challenger Geoff Diehl.
Cutting bait on Diehl — even without actually supporting Warren — might have cost Baker some Republican cred. And what would it have accomplished, when Baker’s own victory was already well in hand?
But now Baker’s next four years are stretched out in front of him. He can and will continue to be brazenly boring on the issues, digging into details and balancing the boat. Plainly, that’s what the people want.
But he also has an opportunity to realize his vision of government that’s reasonable and fair-minded as concretely as any policy proposal. He can hold the rest of his party to the same standards by which he conducts his own political life.
Collaboration, purpose, humility, respect. These days, vision like that makes Charlie Baker a radical.