America’s Most Popular Governor Is a Republican in a Liberal State
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Charlie Baker could be Romney 2.0.
The world has shifted since this profile of Gov. Charlie Baker was published, when Republican Donald Trump was expected to lose the general election. But some things don’t change: Baker remains a top Republican to watch in the coming years. And as we profile Democratic challenger Setti Warren this week, here is a look at the man who continues today to be the nation’s most popular governor, in an OZY encore originally published on May 27, 2016.
The Republican Party is in the throes of relationship blues. It’s moved past dalliances deemed too moderate — the Bushes and McCain — and flirted with a bad-boy outsider: the rebel with a conservative cause. But now that the Donald has all but clinched the nomination, some establishment figures are suffering from post-breakup regret. Recent reports have emerged of red donors begging Mitt Romney to come back, mount a third-party bid and prevent the hijacking of the Grand Old Party.
For Republicans who think that’s nothing but a pipe dream, there is a Romney 2.0, albeit one who couldn’t realistically run until the next election cycle. His name: Charlie Baker. Like Romney, he’s a Massachusetts governor with health care experience, fiscally responsible credentials and a malleable enough view on social issues to get elected in a blue state. To date, he hasn’t expressed interest in the big office. But some political watchers believe Baker could accomplish what those courting Romney only fantasize about: remedy the fallout from this bruising campaign season. “In a perfect world, he could lead an effort to restore sanity to the Republican national party,” says Mo Cunningham, a UMass Boston political scientist. Even better, Baker — who didn’t reply to OZY’s requests for comment — won over the bluest of states: The first-term 59-year-old is the most popular governor in the country, according to a poll released in May, with 72 percent of Massachusetts voters saying they approve of the job he’s done so far.
In Boston, Veterans Day is a rite of passage for the state’s top executive. “Thank you all for being here,” Baker began dully last fall, with his speech turning remarkably warm for such a somber occasion. “Every day, somewhere in this great country of ours, someone is told thank you from a grateful nation. We should all say it a lot.” OK, so it’s not Shakespeare, but Baker works best in the weeds of policymaking, from erasing a $758 million shortfall with his first budget to leading a legislative charge to battle opioid abuse. The latter effort plays to his wonkish résumé, which, in the ’90s, featured decidedly drab titles like Massachusetts’ secretary of Health and Human Services and its Administration and Finance head. Those positions, under a pair of Republican governors, Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci, helped launch Baker’s political myth. “Back when he was in those administrations, people on Beacon Hill called him the smartest man in state government,” says Cunningham — quite a statement, considering Harvard is a stone’s throw away.
Speaking of the Crimson, Baker is an alum, though he conceded in his fifth-reunion book, “With a few exceptions, those four years are ones I’d rather forget.” He never cracked an A at the Ivy League school, rode pine on the basketball team his freshman year and pledged the Delta Upsilon fraternity but didn’t fit in. “I don’t think Charlie ever felt at home at Harvard,’’ his brother Alex told The Boston Globe. After graduating with an English degree, he almost took a reporting job in Casper, Wyoming, before deciding to stick closer to home. He was hired as a communications flack for the Massachusetts High Technology Council and later became head of the Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank with libertarian leanings.
After his government work, Baker was named CEO of Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates and then Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, a pair of nonprofit practices that solidified his medical know-how in a state known as an innovator in the field. When he first ran for governor, in 2010, he lost to incumbent Democrat Deval Patrick 48-42 in a campaign political experts said swung too negative at times — which explains, perhaps, why Baker’s winning 2014 campaign centered around the blandly optimistic “Let’s be great, Massachusetts.”
While Baker has essentially picked up Romney’s presidential-wannabe playbook — fiscal conservative, social moderate, or at least agnostic — it might not be a winning strategy if he’s got bigger aspirations within today’s Republican Party. And that’s because the national political medley is messier than usual, both a cause and an effect of the fraying social fabric that has hyperpolarized our politics and left neither party happy with more moderate solutions. Care-and-compassion conservatism has failed to take root, and onetime presidential hopefuls were forced to take fringe positions this election season. And if Baker were to run in the future, consistency could be an issue: After all, the party might not have room for a soft-spoken policy wonk who has run ads with his gay brother and stated that he’s pro-choice. Thomas Whalen, a political scientist at Boston University, thinks Baker would cave under scrutiny of his more liberal stances. “His standard line is, ‘We’re going to stand back and think on this,’ ” Whalen says. “When you think of political courage, Baker’s face is not at the top of the program.”
But if the blisteringly divisive Trump does get nominated, and then loses the election in November, Baker could mount a more moderate campaign as a potential Hillary-slayer (or, much less likely, a Bernie-slayer) in 2020. And it would appear that Baker is already taking steps toward the right. Amid the anti-immigration fervor that has swept this political season, Baker said he wouldn’t accept any more Syrian refugees “until I know a lot more” about the federal screening process, joining many of his conservative colleagues in the process. “Baker could happen,” Whalen says, but he “will have to take some really hard-right positions in the same way that Romney did.”