As a partisan Democrat I guess I’m supposed to be disturbed by Charlie Baker’s popularity. Former Patrick spokesman Alec Loftus recently attributed Baker’s popularity to a good economy bequeathed to him by the previous administration. There may be some truth to this, but it’s not the whole story.
Baker is popular because he’s seen as taking knotty problems very seriously, and allowing them to play out in public in a relatively transparent way. He doesn’t make provocative, ideological or visionary remarks — to a fault. As far as it goes, this is usually fine. He’s playing out the thread of an ideological consensus that Governor Patrick helped forge. We don’t fight about culture war stuff generally; we’re not trying to tear down the functions of government brick-by-brick in pursuit of some billionaires’ utopia; we’re not in a jawbreaking cage match with public employee unions; we don’t have a budget crisis.
The Patrick administration’s best moments and lasting successes were in playing to the state’s strengths, and envisioning a future economy: Betting on biotech and clean energy, and — with the legislature’s help — keeping the state’s bond rating solid by passing modest tax increases in 2009.
It has been stated here in the comments many times: The Patrick administration was deficient in administrating several areas: DCF; the health care Connector conversion; and now — worst of all — the Green Line extension. You can put these events in context: We weren’t the only state with website problems, and certainly not the only one with big infrastructure cost overruns — which are the rule rather than the exception. Nonetheless, they happened. And it’s not OK.
Apparently we simply don’t have the expertise in-house to oversee big contracts, of whatever type. And that means that we’ve cursed ourselves to ridiculous, soul-crushing and unhealthy commutes, and government IT systems that don’t work. Much of that isn’t new or unique to the Patrick administration; but it is the continuation of our Pig-In-A-Poke contracting culture … the vision-strangling corollary of The Big Dig Culture.
With the T, we’ve held that “reform before revenue” is a false choice. I’ve come around a bit on that, since “reform before revenue” of course ought to apply to fare hikes as well as tax increases. The evidence is abundant of wildly incompetent management and lack of qualified oversight: Where the hell have the T board, the legislature, the auditor, and the Governor been?. Reform is the correct emphasis now. If you’re going to spend money, it should bring real contracting expertise in-house.
Steve Koczela puts it right: The managerial style is what’s playing well right now:
Of course, Baker needs to deliver on good management for his goodwill with the voters to continue. Having taken tough issues head on, he now owns of many of the thorniest problems in state government. If the changes he has made at the MBTA, the Department of Children and Families, the Health Connector and elsewhere do not improve matters, voters may start pointing the finger at him.
via Analysis: Baker’s Amazing Popularity Goes Far Beyond The Economy | WBUR.
In the absence of economic crisis, it’s reasonable in the first year to focus on these inherited bureaucratic messes. But the state’s major challenges are on transport, health care costs, energy, and housing. The solutions are not just bureaucratic, but structural. If Baker is going to take these on, he’s going to have to challenge the legislature. They generally don’t like that.
I’m a Democrat because I like good things to happen. I applaud Baker’s willingness to jump in and try to fix things. But I also fear that he and the legislature will be perfectly happy to let many things slide for the next few years. And that’s where the judgment happens.