After Spectacularly Bad RNC, Charlie Baker Is Looking Smarter and Smarter

There's a path to 2020, if he wants it.

Photo via Governor's Office/Sam Berube

Photo via Governor’s Office/Sam Berube

To borrow an apt phrase from Politico‘s Glenn Thrush, this year’s Republican National Convention was, without much hyperbole, a “nuclear dumpster fire.”

From Melania Trump’s plagiarism of a Michelle Obama speech, to Rudy Giuliani’s nationally televised rabies flare-up, to Ted Cruz’s stunning refusal to endorse a man who suggested that his wife was a hag and his father helped assassinate JFK, and all the D-list Hannity guests in between, this year’s RNC was the worst thing to happen to Cleveland since Art Modell first caught wanderlust.

And here Gov. Charlie Baker was, 600 miles away, going about his “day job.”

As his party smolders on the banks of the Cuyahoga River, Baker remains the most popular governor in America, in an election season that’s shuttled governors through the gauntlet, from Chris Christie to Jeb! Bush and soon Mike Pence, once folks realize how uncomfortable he is with gay folks eating pizza. Baker has already made it abundantly clear he will support neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton this November, and free he will be from the requisite mental gymnastics other members of his party will need to perform to explain why the guy who used to sell steaks at the Sharper Image is now their pick for recipient of the nuclear codes.

Of course, this is classic Baker: Wait and see, and let everyone else gets their hands dirty. Take the Boston 2024 fiasco, for example. Baker never quite took a strong position either way on the beleaguered bid, while week after week, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh took the brunt of the public backlash, waffling on tax-payer funded stadiums and gag-orders for city employees. Baker’s position on the languishing Green Line Extension has never been one of fervent support or opposition, but cautious, pragmatic thrift.

This strategy isn’t always successful. Baker’s unwillingness to a take a stance on the transgender accommodations bill resulted him getting booed offstage at an LGBT event in April. But more often than not, it isn’t Baker with egg on his face. And by circumventing Cleveland, his options remain wide open.

Say Trump, in his own parlance, gets schlonged this November and, somewhere in the next four years, the Republican Party awakes from its fever dream. Should Baker aspire to higher office in 2020, who would he face for the party nomination? Cruz, one of the most unlikeable men in American politics? Baker can enjoy the same ideological “purity” Cruz sought with his primetime non-endorsement, with none of the crippling alienation he will suffer as a result. Speaker Paul Ryan could be in the mix, but could the rigors of keeping House Republicans in order make short work of him, just as it did his predecessor?

Assume the moderates somehow find the gravitas to regain control of the party and jettison the radical Right toward its own faction. Baker can enter, the shining white knight unencumbered by the sins of 2016, and as a blue-state Republican, be the best-suited not only for a general election, but to move past a culture war that’s long been lost. The 2012 GOP autopsy outlining how the party ought to ease up on minorities if it expects relevancy—all but ignored in 2016—could once again prove instructive.

Sure, Republicans have tried to goad him into this mess. Former senator Scott Brown, a Trump supporter, said it sets a bad example for our young people that the governor isn’t voting in the presidential election. Grover Norquist, father of the no-new-taxes pledge, told the State House News Service “you have to worry” about Baker.

But Baker won’t take the bait. He’ll be here where he’s adored—watching and waiting.