The man in the middle
For Baker, the center is comfortable -- and popular -- ground
THERE’S NOTHING IN the middle of the road but yellow lines and dead armadillos, rabble-rousing Texas politico Jim Hightower famously averred. Add to that popular Massachusetts governors.
Gov. Charlie Baker, who parlayed a penchant for cautious incrementalism into a successful first term and reelection, wasn’t about to throw out that playbook when a global pandemic struck, and it seems to be serving him well.
Baker unveiled the start of a four-phase reopening of the state’s economy on Monday, but anyone hoping for a big bang would have been disappointed with the news that not much is actually changing today.
Construction and manufacturing were given a green light, but many such enterprises were already in operation. Some preventive health care services can resume. The biggest change taking effect immediately is permitting religious congregations to hold services — at no more than 40 percent capacity — but that may be a leap of faith that not all belief communities are even ready to take.
To judge from the reaction, it seemed like there was something for everyone not to like, with Baker either killing the state’s economy or turning a blind eye to the virus doing so to its residents.
A dozen liberal Democratic state lawmakers sent Baker a letter over the weekend urging him to keep current restrictions in place at least until June 1. They greeted today’s announcement with alarm.
“I remain deeply concerned with where we’re at,” said Rep. Mike Connolly of Cambridge. “There needs to be more of a focus on collectively working to get our numbers down to a more acceptable place.”
On Twitter, Rep. Tami Gouveia of Acton, another of the letter’s signatories, slammed Baker and the reopening advisory board that crafted the plan. “This reopening plan is not only incredibly dangerous & irresponsible, it lacks real understanding of childcare needs of our working families,” she wrote. “This foolish plan clearly shows the real priority of the board—$$$ and not the health of employees.”
If the state’s Republican governor is getting hit from the left for moving too quickly, he can’t look to his own party for support.
The chairman of the Massachusetts Republican Party, Jim Lyons, said in an interview after Baker’s announcement that he was very disappointed with what he heard. “The idea that we’re going to have government micromanage every business in the Commonwealth, which is basically what was said today, I just find, as a small businessman, is the wrong direction,” said Lyons.
Lyons penned an op-ed over the weekend in the Boston Herald that was sharply critical of Baker’s approach. “Flatten the curve? Yes. Massachusetts residents have successfully achieved that goal,” he wrote. “Flatten the economy? Let’s be very careful before we allow government to undo the decades of economic growth that made our Commonwealth prosperous.”
Lyons, who has operated a Tewksbury ice cream parlor and flower shop for 40 years, said in the interview he doesn’t think Baker should have given all businesses the OK to open today, but believes reopenings should be put on a faster timetable with fewer state regulations in place. He said his business, Dandi-Lyons, opened its takeout ice cream service on May 1 with added sanitary practices for workers and marked-off lines for social distancing by customers queuing up for a cone.
“We don’t need big government to come regulate every move we make, and that is exactly the message that came from that press conference today,” he said.
Lyons, a Trump-backing former state rep from Andover, has shied away from all-out attacks on Baker, who declared Trump ill-suited to lead the country four years ago. But Lyons is working hard to pull the party to the right, while Baker formed his own PAC to support more moderate Republican candidates as well as a not small number of Democrats.
“I’m talking strictly on a policy level,” said Lyons, who shied away from even mentioning Baker by name — though his tweet earlier in the day called out Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito. Asked if Baker’s handling of the crisis is at odds with the party’s belief in smaller, more limited government, Lyons said, “I’m not really going to talk about that.”
A small group of demonstrators showed up over the weekend in Baker’s hometown of Swampscott to protest his shutdown orders. But Connolly, the Cambridge state rep, said it’s a mistake to conclude from that or from a rally earlier this month outside the State House that there is widespread opposition to the governor’s stay-at-home directive.
A recent Suffolk University/ WGBH News/Boston Globe poll suggests he’s right, with 84 percent of state residents saying they approve of Baker’s handling of the pandemic.
“Some people are going to say it’s too slow and some people are going to say it’s too fast,” Baker said on Friday, anticipating the blowback he’d get from Monday’s reopening announcement. “I understand and respect that. But this is our idea of the best shot we have at continuing to make progress and not giving the virus a chance to get back out of the barn.”
Baker said on Monday that he appreciates “the incredible amount of anxiety that comes with both ends of this picture” — referring to concerns about public health and the economy — and said the plan takes a “careful and cautious approach” that tries to balance both issues.
“Charlie Baker is seen as sort of a technocrat — getting the details right and being measured about things, so I think this reflects his political profile,” said Shannon Jenkins, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, about his approach to the crisis.
“The middle of the road is politically where his bread is buttered,” she said, adding that Baker can afford to have people take shots at him from the left and right.Going forward, Jenkins said, Baker’s easing of restrictions will probably find favor with a public betraying its own middle-of-the-road ambivalence. She said people are developing “quarantine fatigue” and want the option to go more places, even as polls show continued fears about the virus may keep them from rushing out.
“I don’t think he’s doing this for the politics. I think he’s doing it for the right reasons,” she said of Baker’s approach. “But I think the politics align for him.”