As the midterm dust finally settles, Washington is predictably preparing for new subpoenas and investigations, lawsuits and tell-all books, while in Massachusetts observers expect, well, far less drama but more effective policy.
Gov. Charlie Baker earned two-thirds of the vote on his way to re-election, riding the popularity of a governing model he forged over the prior four years. In his second term beginning Jan. 3, Baker will likely keep following this playbook and ignore inevitable temptations to veer off course.
A handful of core principles of equal importance comprise the figurative Baker model of governing. The absence of adherence to any one of them would cause it to falter.
A handful of core principles of equal importance comprise the figurative Baker model of governing.
The first principle is to minimize the impact of national politics. The governor has been masterful at deflecting Washington controversies and supporting the side of federal policy that he believes benefits Massachusetts the most. He also hasn’t betrayed an interest in running for national office.
If Baker were to start raising money for a federal campaign and allow his focus to drift from the state, much of his hard-won political capital would dissipate. He surely understands that a large percentage of the electorate split its ticket to send a progressive Democratic senator to Washington to check the Trump administration and keep a moderate Republican governor in the State House to balance the Legislature — not to seek federal office.
This political calculation, however, doesn’t drive Baker’s approach. Rather, his ambition and expertise lie in Massachusetts, not Washington. He’s content in his office, but not yet in his accomplishments for state government. There’s more to come, but in Boston, not the Beltway. It’s interesting that, in contrast to his expressed lack of federal ambition, Baker hasn’t shut down the possibility of running for a third term as governor.
A second principle is to prioritize daily quality of life issues. The Baker administration will pick up where it left off with a revised set of such priorities. This is Baker’s proverbial bread and butter — drive improvements in these core functions of state government and he will be perceived as governing effectively.
The governor’s second term will likely focus on a combination of issues that include more work on the MBTA, a response to the effects of climate change, improving health care delivery and pricing, and affordable housing. These are, no doubt, major policy challenges, but they impact Bay State residents every day at the state and local level.
A third such principle is for Baker to stay in the weeds of policy making, where he generally likes to be. This may seem counter-intuitive, but Baker doesn’t strive for a major legacy project despite occasional urging to spend his political capital on something transformative. Instead, he focuses on the small stuff, and it works well because of his deep state-level policy background.
Also, Baker wasn’t tied to a big idea or an ideology coming into office. This absence of constraint provided flexibility to negotiate, inspire shifting stakeholder coalitions to support his policies, and learn the ropes on Beacon Hill without an obvious bias. This ability to adapt is a strength.
In turbulent periods, sometimes a predictable formula does the trick.
A critical fourth and final principle is for the governor to keep getting along with the state Legislature. He apparently figured out early on that few of his priorities would progress without the cooperation of the co-equal branch. Although the House is generally more supportive of administration initiatives, the governor has managed well the overall relationship with state lawmakers.
By respecting the Legislature’s role and communicating regularly through weekly leadership meetings, Baker has avoided the problems that befall other governors in divided state governments. Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, for example, was — like Baker — a newly elected moderate Republican with substantial business experience in a blue state. He failed to develop a respectful working relationship with the Democratic legislature and Illinois, as a result, hasn’t had a state budget in over two years. This dysfunction contributed to Rauner losing his re-election bid in the midterm cycle.
Baker’s model may not be every governor’s cup of tea, but it has served him well during an era of extreme national discord. In turbulent periods, sometimes a predictable formula does the trick. The residents of the commonwealth can expect more of the same in Baker’s second term.