Charlie Baker 2.0
I am trying, unsuccessfully, to get Charlie Baker to talk about what went wrong in 2010.
We are sitting in the Brighton Café, a greasy spoon near his Commonwealth Avenue campaign headquarters. He’s in chinos and black loafers, blue dress shirt open at the collar—less formal than the suit and tie he wears to fundraisers, dressier than the jeans and polo shirts he dons for glad-handing the public.
It’s also exactly the same outfit—right down to a blue plastic bracelet, this one commemorating the Boston Wounded Veterans motorcycle ride—that he wore when I interviewed him back in October 2010 for an article about what was going wrong with his first campaign to become governor of Massachusetts. It’s a little creepy, especially since the purpose of our visit today is for Baker to convince me how different he is from the guy who lost to Deval Patrick four years ago.
It’s not like I’m throwing gotcha questions at him. I’m simply asking one question, in a variety of ways: What specific campaign practices, or policy approaches, might the 2010 Baker have gotten wrong?
After a long pause, he allows that perhaps, the first time around, he didn’t smile enough.
Finally, on my third try, Baker relents and tells an anecdote from early in the current campaign. During a stop out west, he comes across a man dressed as a rat—the mascot of the Big E fair. Baker poses for a photo with the mascot, and subsequently takes a lot of grief when it’s posted to Twitter. Later, he relates this to the Globe’s Jim O’Sullivan, who tells him, “When the big rat moves to give you a hug, you should just go ahead and embrace it.” Which, Baker says, “I thought was an interesting metaphor for running for office.”
This, we’re supposed to believe, is the extent of Baker’s self-scrutiny: All that’s standing between Charlie and the governor’s office are a few more smiles and a couple of goofy photos.
Don’t get me wrong: I like that Baker is embracing spontaneous silliness. (It makes for good Twitter. In August, when I noted that George Lucas had donated to the Massachusetts Democratic Party and suggested he direct an ad portraying Baker as Darth Vader, Charlie tweeted right back, “I am your father!”) I’m just incredulous that Baker—who made his career as a problem analyst—has no deeper critique of his one great public failure. Instead, he insists that 2010’s campaign is “not relevant” now.
Is there anything, I ask him—anything at all—that Baker would have done differently from Patrick over the past four years?
And that’s when Baker, bearing the broad smile that supposedly will make all the difference this time around, lunges toward me in his seat. “Forward, Dave!” he says, his right arm jutting forcefully over my shoulder. “We’re thinking forward!”
Charlie Baker became a name in politics in 1992, the month he turned 36, when he took over as secretary of Health and Human Services—the largest department in state government—thanks to then-Governor Bill Weld. He was a wunderkind: the son of a well-connected Republican who had worked in the Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan administrations. Undergrad degree from Harvard and MBA from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management; married to the daughter of a Fortune 500 CEO; serious policy credentials as the codirector of a conservative think tank, the Pioneer Institute, created in part by Baker’s dad.
Charlie was self-confident and efficient, and by 1994 Weld made him secretary of Administration and Finance—essentially putting him at the head of the state’s budget. “I’ve worked with every governor from Dukakis to Patrick,” says Mark Robinson, a top aide to both Weld and his successor, Paul Cellucci, who kept Baker on at A & F. “Charlie’s far and away the most experienced and qualified, and ready to serve, of all of them.”
Baker didn’t suffer fools gladly, especially in the media. “Scatological outbursts are a kind of inaugural address” for reporters dealing with Baker, the Boston Globe reported shortly after his appointment. Baker “blew his stack” at reporters, calling them “[expletive] idiots,” the article noted. Patrick deliberately exploited Baker’s short temper during their 2010 debates—more than anything else, Baker’s reactions during those exchanges gave voters the impression of an “angry Charlie.”
That’s the sour memory Baker’s handlers are fighting to erase, and the reason he is courting the media and the public with aggressive pleasantness. When Baker launched his campaign last year, he invited journalists to his Swampscott home to meet his wife, Lauren, and his dog Lucy. The story he was selling? There was a “new Charlie Baker”—by which he meant the real, authentic, nice Baker. The unspoken implication was that “mean Charlie” had been a put-on—a persona assumed at the ill-begotten advice of consultants.
The media bought it. “It won’t be the same Charlie Baker you saw last time,” the Salem News reported. The Globe noted Baker was “working to cultivate the image of a warmer candidate.” “He’ll try to come across less angry and more like himself,” wrote the State House News Service. “The campaign is quick to point out that we’re looking at a new Charlie Baker,” the Westfield Voice declared in December. “The candidate has a cute name for it: Charlie 2.0.” Even the tightly wound policy journal CommonWealth noted this spring: “This is the new Charlie Baker. He’s relaxed, he’s likeable, he’s fun to drink beer with.”
Talk to Baker’s close associates, and the song remains the same. “I think this is the real Charlie,” says Steve Tocco, who served along with Baker in the Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci administrations. “People advising him last time thought he needed to be an angry white male…. You need to be firm, you need to be focused, but you can’t be angry. People don’t like to see that in their candidate.”
This much is true: Baker really did have some terrible consultants in 2010. Among his staff then were strategist Stuart Stevens and pollster Neil Newhouse, who went on to mangle Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012.
But when I covered Baker in 2010, it seemed to me the candidate had an entirely different problem. As I wrote at the time, he struck me as a man who had been so certain, for so long, that he should be governor, that he was oblivious of the need to convince others. And even then, you could argue that Baker’s defeat had less to do with his demeanor than with Patrick’s job-approval rating, which climbed from 22 percent to around 50 percent as the state’s economy improved. “If Charlie had been a nicer guy in 2010, would the result have been any different?” asks one former Baker adviser. “I don’t think so.”
In retrospect, Baker’s 2010 loss was a textbook example of how Republicans lose elections in blue-state Massachusetts. He parroted an ancient George H. W. Bush line by saying, in a campaign interview, “Read my lips, no new taxes.” He alienated moderates by opposing the Cape Wind energy farm, and declared himself agnostic about global warming. His campaign aides insisted that voters cared about balancing the state budget above all else, leading to Baker’s biggest blunder: releasing a plan to eradicate 5,000 state-government jobs at a moment when voters were desperate for any jobs at all.
Baker clearly realizes that these were huge unforced errors. He now approves of Cape Wind and accepts the science behind global warming. His campaign released a detailed plan to fight homelessness. He has bucked national GOP orthodoxy by speaking in favor of buffer zones around abortion clinics, and even came out in favor of Patrick’s offer to house undocumented border-crossing minors. He made those tough calls knowing it would hurt him with conservatives, a quarter of whom voted for the virtually unknown Mark Fisher in the Republican primary.
These new positions are designed to give Baker an in with voters looking for an excuse not to vote for Martha Coakley. But they make for awkward conversations when people like me ask him about his previous positions—all he can really do is declare that they are “not relevant” now.
In August, I tagged along with Baker and his wife as they attended the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament in New Bedford. He was introduced around by a feast organizer named Nelson De Gouveia, who greeted him with a hearty “Chahlie Baykah!” Baker has been a more diligent campaigner this year, and he’s also been making a point of visiting immigrants, Hispanics, and African Americans. He knows he won’t win a majority of their votes, but he hopes to prevent Coakley from running up her margins with traditional Democratic constituencies. One evening in late July, I watched him take questions from a small, all-minority audience at Roxbury’s Twelfth Baptist Church. He might not have won any votes that night, but he impressed a few people.
There are few holdovers from 2010 on Baker’s team. He ditched Stevens and Newhouse, media consultant Rob Gray, and campaign manager Tim O’Brien. He picked up Will Keyser, who has advised Democrats Ted Kennedy and Marty Meehan. For a running mate, he chose former state Representative Karyn Polito, after quite publicly auditioning only female pols for the role. These are strategies designed to soften his image—especially with women, who voted for Patrick over Baker by a 24-point margin in 2010, according to one post-election poll.
If you follow Baker on Twitter, you’ll see him checking in from Red Sox games and rock concerts. (In March, at the annual St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast in Southie, he got choked up talking about how his favorite Boston band, Dropkick Murphys, played at a U.S. soldier’s funeral.) He loves to chat about movies and speaks comfortably about his openly gay brother. But despite his best efforts, Baker often seems unaware of his inability to connect with ordinary people who lead ordinary lives. Constituents come across as abstractions. Luckily for him, his opponent seems to have the same problems.
Whether Charlie can beat Martha may rest on a bigger question: Can Baker sell Massachusetts on his fiscal policies? He wants to make government better by making it smaller, leaner, less unionized, and more business-friendly. This philosophy served him well in his 10 years running Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, where he shut down the provider’s Rhode Island operations, leaving some 1,200 people out of work and 128,000 without health insurance. During his 2010 campaign, Baker said he would do the same for state government.
Now, cuts to state spending aren’t spelled out in his platform—they’re implied. Baker has ruled out new taxes and called for revenue cuts—at the same time proposing significant increases to local aid and at least two dozen new expenses. It sounds like a promise to taxpayers that they can have their cake and eat it, too—but Baker points out that Coakley has proposed far more expensive programs (for example, universal pre-kindergarten). If his plans will require deep cuts in government jobs, he’s learned his lesson too well to say so before election day.
It can sometimes seem as if Baker’s strategy is to smile, say nothing, and wait for Coakley to blow it, as she did against Scott Brown. Coakley’s strategy, by contrast, is to shake hands, say nothing, and hope that Charlie Baker blows it, as he did against Patrick. This makes for one of the more boring political contests in Massachusetts history. As our Brighton Café interview was winding down, I asked Baker—three times, point blank—for a criticism of his opponent.
This is an exact transcript, although it took him over a minute to choke the whole thing out: “I guess I would say that…I’m running for governor, and I think I would be—based on my experience and my skill set and my vision—the right guy to be governor in Massachusetts. I’ve—I guess I would say about Martha’s—I don’t really think about it that way. I think about the way the candidates who are running would perform as governor, because that’s the job we’re all interested in.”
In other words, as with everything else I asked him, he declined to answer. But, to be fair, he did it with a smile.
More: Read David S. Bernstein’s full interview with Charlie Baker.