The Dodger: Not coming to terms with the Big Dig
This is huge, and to me completely inexplicable. The Big Dig was always going to be part of the conversation in this election, and the fact is that Charlie Baker was high up in state government when important decisions about the Big Dig were being made. It’s the easiest, most obvious attack that one can direct at Baker.
And yet, he seems to have been completely unprepared and unwilling to talk about the subject. In perhaps the best known example, and one that set a very bad tone early on, Baker had such an embarrassingly terrible interview with Globe columnist Brian McGrory back in March regarding the Big Dig that McGrory, who should have been sympathetic to at least some of Baker’s message, instead actually called him a liar in a subsequent column.
Since then, Baker has totally failed to learn any lessons from the McGrory debacle. Instead, he has continued to refuse to answer straightforward questions about the Big Dig, even as the Globe made perfectly clear his central role in the Big Dig’s financing, his non-credible denials notwithstanding. Just yesterday, the Globe had a big piece on Baker’s fuzzy math (to put it mildly) when he signed bond disclosures regarding the Big Dig. In researching the story, the reporters of course wanted to get Baker’s take:
when the Globe asked Baker to review the bond offering documents, he took more than a week to respond with a brief written statement and declined to be interviewed.
Amazingly, he still won’t talk about it. He seems to be convinced that if he clamps his eyes shut, and holds his breath until he turns blue, the Big Dig, and his role in it, will go away.
In reality, though, when he does that, all that happens is that voters see a candidate who appears to have something to hide. A dodger. And once you establish yourself as that kind of candidate, it’s very hard to regain the voters’ trust. Richard Nixon proved that the cover-up is usually much worse than the original misdeed. It’s amazing to me that would-be politicians continue to act otherwise.
The Poser: Pretending to be Everyman
Charlie Baker, you’re no Scott Brown. He knows that – he’s said as much, making a good joke early on about Brown’s truck and his own Pacifica. But he has not learned the basic lesson of what it means not to be Scott Brown. Baker seems to think that if he walks around in a t-shirt and drops a few final g’s in words that end with -ing, he’ll be able to connect to the Regular Folks™.
It doesn’t work that way. Not when you absurdly pretend that, having just left a job as CEO of a major health insurance company with a $1.75 million salary, your kids are “middle class” like everyone else’s. Not when you’ve held a couple of the most important and most powerful unelected positions in state government. Not when your dad was a high-ranking official in the Nixon and Reagan administrations, and not when you went to Harvard. And not, to quote McGrory yet again, when Baker’s talk about “tough decisions” comes down to this:
All those tough decisions never actually affect people like him. As for the people they do affect, Baker has shown no particular facility or desire to understand them.
Just yesterday, the fashion consultants hired by the Herald to comment on the candidates’ wardrobes, of all people, hit the nail on the head:
[T]he panel’s wardrobe props to Patrick weren’t paid to Baker, whom they accused of overplaying the casual card.
“It’s almost insulting,” said Cleveland. “He’s not the man next door, and he’s pandering to the man next door.”
The panel wondered if the former Harvard Pilgrim Health honcho, who certainly should know his way around a well-made suit, has been choosing outfits that distance himself from the posh GOP stereotype.
“It’s dumbing down,” said De Paulo.
Or, as I wrote back in April, in the wake of Baker’s “middle class” gaffe,
This is exactly why Charlie Baker is such a surprisingly lousy candidate. He is desperately trying to pretend to be something he isn’t: a regular, middle-class guy. He should run as what he is: a wealthy, Harvard-educated, elite insider who knows a lot about state government and the health care industry (having spent years working for both) and (the story goes) has the tools to fix it.
The electorate is not stupid, despite what wannabe politicians like Baker apparently think. Voters rapidly sniff out phonies and punish them, as Mitt Romney learned in 2008. The more Baker pretends to be just like the regular folks he wants to represent, the further he’s going to fall in the polls.
It’s possible to be a poser and still get elected. Just ask George W. Bush, who used his folksy Texas shtick to mask his elite, private school and Ivy League upbringing. But it’s not easy, and you have to be much better at it than Baker apparently is to pull it off.
The Angry Man: HAD ENOUGH??
Margery Eagan nails Baker for this long-standing problem in today’s Herald:
Charlie Baker is tired of the “angry man” question.
I know because I asked him yesterday.
He got angry.
That’s funny. But it’s only funny because Baker has given voters a very bad impression of the kind of person he is, and the kind of leader he’d be. Numerous articles have commented on how exasperated, frustrated, and angry Baker often seems out on the campaign trail. And it’s no wonder, since his first big campaign theme was the poorly-attended, and basically angry, “Had Enough?” tour.
Bernstein reports that many analysts and candidates, including some Republicans, offer what seems to me a correct assessment of what a screw-up playing the Anger Card was:
That strategy misses the public mood, which is driven more by anxiety about the recession’s effects on their families and communities, according to many analysts and insiders – including some lower-ballot Republican candidates, not wishing to be named.
Beyond that, it is a natural human instinct to want to like your leaders. Anger is an important and powerful emotion, but it is also sometimes scary and dangerous. &nb
sp;Furthermore, while anger is sometimes necessary and appropriate, it is not normal to be angry all the time, so when people see a candidate who appears to be angry all the time, and who in fact appears to have built major themes in his campaign around anger, they are naturally made uneasy. It’s a very tricky balance to tap into the anger that’s out there – and, no question, there is some out there, along with the anxiety Bernstein references – without going too far and just seeming like someone who isn’t very nice and isn’t very pleasant to be around; that’s part of why Bob Dole got crushed when he ran for president. Nobody wants to be yelled at for the next four years.
Lately, perhaps realizing the damage that the Angry Man image has done, Baker has tried to bring the warm and fuzzy by cutting a video of his wife talking him up. But now, of course, it’s too late for that. These narratives get set in stone early, and once the cement hardens, it takes more than a soft-focus web-only video to crack it. Baker chose to set up this narrative with his performance on the stump and in debates, and also with the “Had Enough? Well, HAVE you, for GOD’S SAKE?? WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU???” tour. Walking it back now is going to very difficult, and there isn’t much time left.
* * *
I have no idea how much of the Dodger, the Poser, and the Angry Man are part of the real Charlie Baker and how much result from poor advice and poor strategy. Thing is, though, it doesn’t really matter. People vote based on what they know, since that’s all they’ve got to go on. That’s why campaigns are so incredibly important: they are candidates’ only opportunity to help millions of voters feel like they know them. If you blow the campaign, it’s really hard to win the election.
Final note: no, this election is not over – far from it. Things look pretty good for Team Deval right now, but that could change quickly, and it’s going to be a frantic two weeks on both sides. But regardless of what happens on November 2, I think there is little doubt that the campaign of Charlie Baker – the man some saw as “the perfect, flawless candidate” – could have been, and should have been, a whole lot better.