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Mush In The Middle: Baker And Coakley Balk At Drawing Sharp Distinctions

Republican Charlie Baker and Democrat Martha Coakley participate in a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce debate. WBUR's Bob Oakes, right, moderates. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Republican Charlie Baker and Democrat Martha Coakley participate in a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce debate. WBUR's Bob Oakes, right, moderates. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
This article is more than 5 years old.

In lamenting the sleepy state of the Massachusetts governor’s race, much has been made of the less-than-electrifying personas of the two front-runners. It’s true that neither Republican Charlie Baker nor Democrat Martha Coakley will be accused of speechifying in the spellbinding manner of Deval Patrick, or of having the mesmerizing, retail charm of Bill Clinton on the stump.

But the reason the race seems to be leaving voters cold goes deeper than tepid temperaments. It’s as much because the major party candidates have been equally tame when it comes to setting out forceful positions that distinguish them from one another. Last week's forum sponsored by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce was a good example.

Coakley managed to work in her signature refrain — that we can make Massachusetts “both prosperous and fair.” But Baker wasn't going to cede that flavorless throwaway line to her. When WBUR’s Bob Oakes, the moderator, asked what the candidates would do to combat growing income inequality, Baker cited more robust career and technical schools as a concrete step “if we want a fairer and more prosperous Massachusetts.”

Perhaps his Coakley echo came unconsciously because Baker has now heard her say it so often. But it’s also because he’s been sounding a bromidic campaign theme very similar to Coakley’s. Baker has said his unsuccessful 2010 run for governor suffered because of a lack of focus and an effort to engage too many issues. He’s making sure there’s no risk of that this time, sticking with the simple threesome of jobs, great schools and great communities.

He’s talked about the fact that great jobs and schools are plentiful in much of Massachusetts, a high wage state with high student achievement, but that these attributes don’t reach every corner of the state. That has set up the attention Baker has given to fairness and prosperity for all — and his relentless focus on the state’s Gateway Cities, the struggling former industrial centers in need of a 21st century reboot.

Both candidates’ stump speeches offer twists on income inequality, which has become the defining domestic issue in the years following the 2008 Wall Street meltdown. This week's WBUR tracking poll showed that more voters (49 percent) think the next governor should prioritize economic equality over economic growth (37 percent). But Baker and Coakley have each managed to take an issue that sparked outrage and street protest, and water it down to a version so broad and bland that no one could take issue with it.

Baker has picked some spots to sound more Republican notes of fiscal discipline and wariness toward taxes. He opposes indexing the gas tax to inflation, for example, while Coakley supports it. Meanwhile, Coakley has also tried to trade on standard distinctions between the parties, decrying the idea that tax breaks for corporations will trickle down and seed broader prosperity. Voters have largely responded to these leanings. As MassINC Polling Group’s Steve Koczela wrote recently for Poll Vault, voters see Coakley as a better hope on education and income inequality, while they view Baker as the better choice for keeping taxes low or making state government function better.

But Baker and Coakley often seem to be scrimmaging between the 40-yard lines. Baker has shied away from advancing what could be seen as a muscular, more Republican agenda to even the inequities in the economy or schooling. He supports charter schools, for example, but he has hardly been hammering the issue, or talking about seizing district schools in low-performing cities and freeing them from calcified bureaucracies as a way to tackle chronic under-performance, as is happening in Lawrence under a state turnaround plan there.

Coakley, meanwhile, sounded ready to push a big education expansion when she vowed, in her primary night victory speech, to “provide universal pre-kindergarten to all children in Massachusetts.” But it turns out her real goal is considerably more modest, as she now says she only wants to eliminate the waiting list of 17,000 children seeking state-subsidized pre-k slots. She puts a price tag of $150 million on that, and says that money can be found through "efficiencies," touting managerial skills honed in the attorney general’s office. True universal pre-k for all 4-year-olds in the state would cost on the order of $1.5 billion, according to the liberal-leaning Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center. And that would require a new revenue stream, something Coakley has wanted to go nowhere near.

Even in their affects, the candidates seem to be veering closer. Baker looks determined to ease back from the more combative posture that is his nature, while Coakley is struggling to dial things up beyond a just-the-fact mien that fits her prosecutor’s background, but isn't an asset in a candidate for governor. If the convergence continues, by November we may just be referring to the duo as "Chartha" or "Marlie."

The state is generally in good shape. The economy is recovering, and there is not the sort of anger among the electorate that gives rise to candidates making fiery vows to bring a huge shake-up to government. A string of high-profile managerial miscues under Gov. Deval Patrick has also made the idea, at this point, of a capable, if unflashy, steward of state government seem not so bad.

Add the fact the undecided voters who are still in play tend to fall more in the ideological middle, and all the message modulating is perfectly understandable. But it also helps explain why this race isn't exactly the talk of the town.

Michael Jonas is executive editor of CommonWealth magazine.

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