Charlie Baker couldn’t be elected dog catcher as a Republican in wide red swaths of our country. For evidence, look at just the last 24 hours. Our Republican governor is expanding diversity in businesses contracting with the state, widening opportunities for people with disabilities and LGBT orientations to share in the $4 billion a year in contracts for goods and services. In Houston, now the nation’s fourth largest city, voters repealed an anti-discrimination ordinance. In Kentucky, Republican Matt Bevin was elected on a promise to end the state’s Medicaid expansion, denying health coverage to nearly half a million people.
To Republicans across the country, Charlie Baker is a RINO (Republican in Name Only.) On a range of issues, he has managed to find the sweet spot where most people not at the extreme right or left of their parties are. This is not just because he is motivated by the practicalities of being a Republican in a Democratic state. It’s a matter of style and conviction. As Baker likes to tell it (and as he reminded The New England Council on Tuesday), his mother was a Democrat; his father, a Republican. It was, he says, “a purple household.” He learned that public service matters, and he also figured out at the dinner table how to disagree without being disagreeable. “No one has the corner on all the answers,” he says.
The founders envisioned collaboration and compromise, he reminds us. “Today that’s viewed as selling out, sacrificing your principles.” But with the national partisan divide roughly 50/50, there has to be give and take if you want to get anything done. In Massachusetts, half the people are independent or unenrolled; 35 percent are Democrats; the rest identify as Republicans. The independents tilt toward red or blue in roughly the same proportions.
The people of Massachusetts apparently appreciate that in Baker. A solid 70 percent view the governor favorably, the highest favorability rating of any new governor in the country. But were he to run for President, he’d likely be a big loser. Regrettably, primaries skew to party extremes, and candidates feel the need to tilt hard, demonizing the opposition and forgetting that, if they win, they still have to govern.
The obstacle that extremism presents to the governing process is clearly illustrated nationally by the House of Representatives. Of 435 seats, only 16 percent are swing districts. The rest are split between Republicans and Democrats, safe seats with no incentive to compromise. Moderation earns you a primary challenge or unemployment. No wonder there is gridlock.
Many have found hope in the election of Wisconsin Rep Paul Ryan to be Speaker of the House. He’s young, attractive and smart. And he’s saying many right things. Things like opening up the process, improving the way the House works, creating transparency, working to get things done. If only wishing were to make it so. Given the mentality of the Tea Party/Freedom Caucus, however, I fear it won’t be long before Ryan has the same problems that his predecessor John Boehner had. With apologies to Barry Goldwater, extremism in defense of ideology is every bit a vice, whether it’s red or blue.
Charlie Baker is a testament to the power of purple. Too bad it’s in such short supply outside of Massachusetts.
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