March 18, 2015

Just yesterday it seemed that my colleague Professor Cunningham, was ready to jump on the Charlie Baker bandwagon to help make the Republican Party competitive at the national level.

Little did Mo know that the Governor was guilty of “traitorous behavior.”

That’s the description a member of the Republican state committee used to describe, among other sins, the Governor’s decision to sign an amicus brief to the Supreme Court supporting same sex marriage. Jim O’Sullivan provides a fuller picture in yesterday’s Boston Globe.

On social issues, the base of the tiny Republican Party is far to the right of the general election voters that put Charlie Baker into office. 

When the Governor acts on those issues, he brings the rift into public view. It will happen frequently over the next few years. 

It is reasonable that a party base, the people who staff the caucuses, attend meetings, and believe that the two parties should have distinctive views, often feel betrayed when their most visible member acts in a way that contravenes the party’s stated platform. This fissure is heightened here because the party is so small. 

But even if the Governor believed in every last word of his own party’s platform (he didn’t endorse it and neither, interesting, did the party Chairwoman), fidelity to a platform is the stuff of parliamentary parties and not well suited to a system of separation of powers and independently elected executives. There exists a natural tension between the goals of the party and the institutional arrangement of the Constitution. 

From a political organization point of view, party members who expressed frustration at the Governor are largely correct: it doesn’t help their efforts when a prominent member of their party takes a very public stance at odds with his base. 

But to label the Governor’s action as another example of “traitorous behavior” is to deny American political history and culture.  It's also quite a turn of phrase to use against a popularly elected Governor of your party who happens to have a fundamental disagreement with other party members on an important issue.  

The party hat the Governor wears is but one of many and never the most important. Party platforms are relevant to party organizations and their members but they are rarely relevant to an electorate that is largely unenrolled. Nor are they governing manifestos. They simply cannot be in a system of separated institutions sharing power. 

This new fissure also raises an old question: what does it mean to be a Massachusetts Republican? 

Increasingly viewed as an exotic species, the fight for the definitive meaning continues. There was a time, long since past, when being a Republican from Massachusetts was not viewed as a meaningless phrase or an oxymoron. 

New England conservatism had a comfortable home here. But the national party moved away from the conservatism of the Massachusetts variety and toward the populism of the West and South. But what does it mean to be a Republican from Massachusetts today? 

Perhaps Charlie Baker can offer a new definition. Bill Weld tried and was successful at first but his time in office didn’t transform the GOP in Massachusetts into a governing party. Politics is about pressure and none of the party’s wings (the libertarian wing, social conservative wing, and tea party wing that has emerged of late) has the strength necessary to completely mold the party to its vision of conservatism. 

So they battle each other, in some instances much more successfully than they battle the Democrats who continue to dominate every other office except the Corner one. 

The late David Brudnoy left the state Republican Party because of such skirmishes and the dominance of social conservatives in its councils. 

Some state committee members upset with Governor Baker, and Governor Weld before him, might indeed be happier with a political divorce but multi party politics doesn’t fit well in the American or Massachusetts political tradition and such a divorce would only further dilute what strength they have. 

An interesting side note to this latest controversy between the Governor and his party is that the amicus brief he signed has been advanced by George W. Bush’s former party chair, Ken Mehlman. It has been signed by such an eclectic group of Republicans including Mary Bono, Rudy Giuliani, Alex Castellanos, S.E. Cupp, Ilena Ross, Alan Simpson, David Koch and Paul Wolfowitz. 

Other Massachusetts-based signatories include Vincent DeVito, Gabriel Gomez, Patrick Guerriero, Ron Kaufman, Beth Myers, Jen Nassour, Karyn Polito, Richard Ross, Jane Swift, Richard Tisei, Bill Weld. Surely this is a group should also have a voice in determining what constitutes Republicanism in the Commonwealth.  Or perhaps they are all traitors . . . 

In the battles between members of his party base and the Governor, the Chief Executive will almost always win. Baker was a student and confidant of Bill Weld who emerged from a fractious Republican party in 1990 and went on to win a greater percentage of the popular vote in 1994 than any of his predecessors or successors. 

Two Governors in modern times were denied renomination: Dukakis in 1978 and King in 1982. That’s a helpful reminder that Governors can’t move too far beyond their party’s parameters. 

But complaints about his actions by members of his party recall Henry Kissinger, who once quipped “University politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small.” You’d be forgiven if you mistook that phrase to describe Republican state committee politics in Massachusetts.

Massachusetts Republican Party, same sex marriage, Charlie Baker

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