COULD he? Should he? Would he?
With his second term as Massachusetts’ Governor secured, and reputation as America’s Only Likeable Republican in the bag, Charlie Baker’s national political aspirations have become a hot topic among Bay State hoi polloi and cognoscenti alike.
The spilled soda on the floor of Hynes Convention Center, where Governor Baker celebrated his recent victory, was still waiting to be mopped up when the Boston Globe weighed in on Baker’s Presidential prospects – like Governor Dukakis’ before him – “so bright, he’s gotta wear shades.” And it’s hard to disagree when, at least in Massachusetts, the most generous thing anyone will say on record about our current President is that even on a cloudy day, he reminds you of high-noon at the equator.
Then again, our local affinity for Charlie should be tempered by the knowledge that 1. The political pragmatism that’s made Baker the most popular governor in the nation has not recently been a winning formula for Presidential contenders (see Ohio Governor John Kasich’s failed 2016 bid), and 2. Rallying behind our Most Popular Governor in the Nation is a little like rallying behind Tom Brady south of Rhode Island. From many Americans’ points of view, if we Bostonians can prove something of ours is the best, that’s a good indication that they should drown it in a well.
So, could Governor Baker run for President in 2020? It is unusual, but not impossible for a member of an incumbent President’s party to challenge him for the nomination. Baker could run as a Republican in 2020, but he would have his work cut out for him—for both the reasons already mentioned and, if history is any guide, statistically speaking. Certainly, he could run on an Independent ticket with, say, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but there’s even less historical precedent there for success. There have only been six major parties that have won large shares of the Presidential vote in American politics, and the last time a third party supplanted a major party was 1856. The last time one of the two major parties came third, as would have to happen if an independent Bloomberg-Baker ticket were to have a shot at winning, was in 1912. That party was the Progressive Party, and it had faded to irrelevance only four years later.
To have a real shot at becoming President, Governor Baker’s best bet would be to run in 2024. But should he? Assuming his local popularity and managerial leadership style remains the same (and with markets tumbling daily and a recession seemingly on the horizon, those assumptions are hardly a given), his profile is a good match for big donors, corporate power-brokers, and media king-makers, not to mention a Republican Party that, by then, may be desperate to expand beyond the Trump faithful. It’s these qualities, however, that probably make running in 2024 a bad idea.
The crux of the argument against a candidate like Baker in six years’ time is a point which Democrats, and many Republicans too, have stubbornly ignored since Trump was elected: managerial or technocratic governance has not only failed a substantial part of the electorate, it’s never going to win elections in the future. Trump’s election is a symptom of a growing disgust for experts’ and elite institutions’ failures to provide leadership and security to individuals who feel not only powerless, but alienated from community, and hopeless to boot. One only need look at the national suicide and drug overdose rates to understand that the American psyche is not well.
New England has the dubious distinction of proudly extolling the virtues of elite governance, from the Pilgrims to the Harvard Business Review, because it’s worked relatively well for us. We make the rules and reap the rewards in doing. The rub is that, when the national mood changes, we—and our elite offspring in media and business—are often behind the curve. Currently and for the foreseeable future, Governor Baker is our political hero, but looked at against a national backdrop, it’s hard not to see his hero’s stand as technocratic holdout.
As filmmaker and cultural critic Adam Curtis observesin his latest documentary “HyperNormalization”, the current zeitgeist is “(Screw) off to everything”. Take a stroll down any comments section on the internet, and it’s hard to ignore. One of Governor Baker’s best qualities is not to say anything so divisive, and to maintain the stability of the status quo, but division is at hand, and the status quo has burned a large part of the American electorate.
It will take a candidate willing to risk division in order to summon “the better angels of our nature”, an Abe Lincoln, to restore American politics to something more than hot-takes and putdowns. If Charlie Baker finds that voice, he can and should run for President, in 2020 or beyond, but for now, it’s a moot point.
Governor Baker has said he has no interest in running for national office.