January 08, 2015

Any new governor brings change – disruption to existing political arrangements. In the conception of the presidential scholar Stepehen Skowronek in his study of presidential change, The Politics Presidents Make, each president has certain “warrants’ to affect change. In the case of Governor Baker, his authority to bring change may be quite limited.

Skowronek’s formulation may not speak to state executives but it’s at least worth pondering. He spoke of “political time” as the relationship between established commitments of ideology and interest and the executive’s own actions.

In terms of established commitments of ideology and interests the recent campaign revealed few fissures between Baker and the prevailing philosophical approach on Beacon Hill. It’s true that Baker whacked away at the condition of one-party rule at the State House, but his challenge was not ideological. Rather he offered the promise of a counterbalance to Democrats who through a mixture of corruption (Probation Department) and/or incompetence (Health Connector, Department of Children and Families, medical marijuana, etc.) failed to meet the electorate’s needs. Martha Coakley ran a party-centered race predicated on memories of all the good things Democrats have provided the electorate over the years. Baker ran a candidate-centered campaign in which he largely eschewed challenging Democratic “values” in favor of the promise that government would work much more efficiently under a Baker administration. Rather than a bold challenge to Democratic governing premises based on the radical conservatism of the Republican Party, Baker wisely offered largely to accept the Democrats' established ideology with a promise to make the trains run on time. In an election he could not possibly win on party or ideology, he did not run on party or ideology.

To say that Baker muted ideological differences during the campaign is not to say that there are not some at the margins and these may play out visibly in terms of “established commitments of  . . . interests.” Baker favors charter schools and the combative Massachusetts Teachers Association President Barbara Madeloni will marshal support in the legislature to oppose charter school expansion and to provide a watchful eye on Baker’s education preferences. Among other constituencies, the environmental community is wondering how a Baker administration will play out. Still, as for competence Baker has conducted a well-managed transition with un-threatening appointments. Even David Kravitz of the progressive blog bluemassgroup.com has posted OK I’ll say it: most of Charlie Baker’s appointments look pretty good.

Baker’s Republican gubernatorial model is Bill Weld, who Baker served in the Nineties. Conditions are different now. Weld ran in 1990, a time of fiscal turmoil that allowed him to repudiate outgoing Democratic Governor Michael Dukakis and the legislature for both cutting services and raising taxes. In a throw the bums out year, enough Republican senators were swept into office to sustain a Weld veto. In 2014 the electorate did not reject Democratic policies, only Democratic implementation; even at that, Baker narrowly prevailed with almost no coattails.

When private citizen Baker visited my class in Massachusetts Politics at UMass Boston in 2012 a student noted his moderation and asked, “Why are you a Republican instead of a Democrat?” In part Baker answered with a lesson he learned from Governor Weld: when you get elected governor as a Republican in Massachusetts, you don’t owe anybody. Thus the battles to come will likely be on the interest group front, not on ideology.

Another factor, of course, is the overwhelming advantage the Democratic Party has in the legislature. To get anything done, Baker will need the Democrats. That is another lesson Baker learned well from Governor Weld. They didn’t call Baker the smartest man in state government for nothing.

Still, if he seeks big change, his “warrants” are severely limited.

Finally let me express my appreciation to Governor Deval Patrick for his service and offer my good wishes and optimism to Governor-elect Charlie Baker for a productive term. If it is true that you get the elected officials you deserve, Massachusetts is in excellent shape indeed.

Baker, Charlie

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