Magazine | August 29, 2016, Issue

Charlie Baker’s Success

The Massachusetts governor resembles an older variety of conservative

Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker is the anti–Donald Trump. He is even-tempered, skilled at working with his political opponents, compassionate, and quite possibly the most wonkish governor in America. He is certainly the most popular, a remarkable accomplishment for a Republican in one of the bluest states in the Union. That Baker should be going so strong in the age of Trump attests to the strange varieties of American federalism and should encourage Republicans who still believe that the path to power runs through serious policymaking.

Elected in 2014, Baker is now halfway through his second year as governor, though he’s been a familiar face on the state-government scene since the late 1980s. He got his start as co-director of the Pioneer Institute, a center-right think tank in Boston. In 1991, on the strength of the research he oversaw on safety-net policy, Baker was appointed undersecretary of the state’s department of health and human services by newly elected governor William Weld, a Republican. The context was the early-1990s recession, which hit Massachusetts hard and necessitated cuts to health-care programs then overwhelming the state budget. Baker would later become head of the department and eventually take control of the state’s budget office.

Though he has significant private-sector experience, having saved Harvard Pilgrim, one of the state’s largest health insurers, from bankruptcy before working briefly in venture capital, Baker spent his formative years in the public sector. That is to say, he’s an insider. His knowledge of the state budget’s nuts and bolts has proved crucial in navigating a political landscape in which only 11 percent of registered voters are Republicans. The GOP holds only six out of 40 state-senate seats and 34 seats in the 160-member state assembly. According to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures, no other governor faces a state legislature dominated by the opposite party to such a degree. In today’s political climate, much of the public seems to believe that only an outsider can get the job done, yet Baker demonstrates that sometimes insiders make the most effective politicians.

Baker first ran for governor in 2010 and was soundly defeated by the incumbent Democrat, Deval Patrick. The loss was partly chalked up to Baker’s angry campaign slogan — “Had Enough?” — which was not well received and, many believe, didn’t reflect Baker’s character and temperament. In 2014, Baker went full “Morning in America,” adopting the slogan “Let’s Be Great, Massachusetts.”

The gubernatorial election was closely contested. Baker beat then–attorney general Martha Coakley by about 40,000 votes out of 2.2 million cast. But the electorate hasn’t looked back: Baker’s approval rating now tops 70 percent and is higher than that of any other governor, according to the Morning Consult. Baker owes his popularity to two factors.

First, Massachusetts likes divided government. Since Weld’s win in 1990, Democrats have held near-continuous supermajorities in the legislature, but Republicans have prevailed in all but two of the gubernatorial elections. The Boston Globe’s endorsement of Baker, its first of a Republican candidate for governor in two decades, extolled the benefits of a “counterpoint to the instincts of an overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature.” 

Second, Baker’s constituents see him as devoted to state affairs, unlike some of his predecessors, such as Weld, Mitt Romney, and Deval Patrick, who were too eager to cultivate a national profile. As current Pioneer Institute executive director Jim Stergios explains, Baker “is a governor who really wants to be governor.” Baker endorsed Chris Christie shortly before the New Hampshire primary in a gesture of gratitude toward Christie, who, as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, had provided $11 million in campaign funds for Baker’s 2014 race. This blatant quid pro quo played well among Massachusetts voters, who took it as evidence that Baker doesn’t take presidential politics too seriously. (One of the few top elected Republicans not to have endorsed his party’s nominee, Baker has made it clear he’s not voting for Hillary Clinton or Trump.) Baker’s studious avoidance of the national spotlight means that the most popular governor in America will never be America’s governor.

Baker has largely met his constituents’ expectation that he focus on fixing their problems. His management skills were put to the test early on when heavy snowfall brought Boston’s public-transit system, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, or “T,” to a halt. February 2015 saw the greatest snow accumulation since weather records have been kept for Boston, and only one-third of commuter trains ran on time that month. Baker used the crisis to elevate public awareness of the T’s aging equipment, prioritizing of expansion over maintenance, and inefficient procurement and labor-management practices. Following recommendations made by a special panel he appointed in the wake of “Snowmageddon,” Baker succeeded in getting reform legislation through the statehouse despite union opposition. The legislation authorized Baker to take over the T via a five-member  board and temporarily suspended the “Pacheco” law, which makes it practically impossible to outsource state services. The goal is not to privatize the T itself, but to realize efficiencies and reduce costs by contracting out non-core functions such as warehouse operations and transit-police dispatch. 

Baker has also taken on opioid addiction, which has claimed the lives of thousands of Massachusetts residents in recent years. Between 2012 and 2014, the death toll increased by two-thirds. A report from a task force appointed by Baker set the framework for legislation passed in March 2016 that established a seven-day limit on initial opioid prescriptions for adults and all prescriptions for minors.

Baker is socially liberal, a politically essential quality for a statewide official in Massachusetts. He is pro-choice and has long supported gay marriage, a stance informed by his having a gay brother. About Baker’s social liberalism, two points should be made. One, unlike Michael Bloomberg, another blue-state technocrat, Baker has no interest in ramming his liberalism down other people’s throats. Second, it is not thoroughgoing. For example, Baker forcefully opposes a 2016 ballot question to legalize recreational marijuana, arguing that, at a time when opioid addiction is “ravaging” Massachusetts, it’s madness for government to be encouraging more drug use.

On fiscal matters, Baker has reinforced the streak of Yankee frugality that has, in recent decades, led Massachusetts to shed its reputation as “Taxachusetts” and boast a tax burden now lower than those of most other deep-blue states. Despite massive deficits left over from the outgoing Patrick administration, Baker has managed to balance two straight budgets without raising taxes. Baker did not sign a “no new taxes” pledge in 2014, claiming that it would restrict his ability to pursue tax reform, but he has been notably cool toward an effort under way by liberal activists, and supported by the state legislature, to amend the state constitution to allow for a progressive income tax (Massachusetts currently has a flat tax). Baker also played a key role in putting a stop to two taxpayer-subsidized boondoggles — Boston’s bid for the 2024 Olympics and a proposed expansion of the Boston Convention Center — and he has tried to rein in the state’s notoriously wasteful program of tax credits for film production, though the legislature has yet to budge on that one.

The area where Baker is pushing Massachusetts the hardest is school choice. Charter-school expansion is currently restrained by a statutory cap that local politicians and the teachers’ union — wishing not to lose per-pupil public-school funding when parents choose charter schools — strongly defend. Baker initially attempted to raise the cap through the legislative process, but the senate balked. He is now pursuing this reform through a ballot initiative in November. With recent polls showing that about half of voters favor the measure and around 20 percent are still undecided, it seems likely to pass.

Certainly there is more work to be done, and Baker will need the legislature’s help doing it. Government unions, which represent almost two-thirds of the public-sector work force, stymie effective policymaking in far more areas than just charter schools. The state’s pension fund is billions in the hole. Massachusetts has one of the most successful post-industrial state economies, but growth is heavily concentrated in the greater-Boston area. Fall River — whose plight was recently highlighted by Thomas Frank in his book Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? — has an unemployment rate almost three times that of Cambridge. Though Baker has won high praise for his attention to Fall River and other poor cities long run by Democrats, his urban-redevelopment policies are substantially the same as those of past administrations and thus unlikely to make much of a difference.

Baker’s strong poll numbers have raised hopes among Massachusetts Republicans that he will grow the party. Last year, he pushed to elect a number of his preferred candidates to the state Republican committee. But a May analysis by the Boston Globe found that the 2016 election cycle is seeing a “dramatic decrease” in Republican challenges to Democratic incumbents compared with 2014. This has led some Republican-party loyalists to think that Baker is avoiding confrontations with Democratic legislators with whom he needs to work. Others have interpreted his maneuvering as an effort to keep the party focused on Massachusetts issues and winnable races. In the midterm legislative elections during his term as governor, Mitt Romney led a broad-based effort to increase the number of Republicans in state elected office. He failed spectacularly.

In short, Baker is trying to govern, not revolutionize, Massachusetts. This approach reflects his mandate from voters, who elected him to improve on a status quo with which they are largely satisfied. In recent decades, American conservatism has tended to be defined in ideological terms, but a more traditional understanding cast it as an attitude. Baker in many ways embodies that older understanding. He once described his governing style as “relentless incrementalism” — Baker prioritizes modest improvements over radical change. His approach to problems such as the T compares favorably with the national scene, where self-interest tends to trump the traditional goals of safety and prosperity. Charlie Baker, by virtue of his government experience and sense of responsibility, is likely to leave Massachusetts in a better position than the one he found it in. And that is no small achievement for conservatism.

– Mr. Eide is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

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