Republican Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts shares a laugh with departing Governor Deval Patrick in the Governor's State House press room.
Veteran Washington observers have their fingers crossed that Speaker-elect Paul Ryan’s opening nod toward constructive bi-partisanship is more than just an obligatory gesture in the well-established ritual of fence-mending every new House leader is expected to perform before taking possession of “the big gavel.”
While Ryan was accepting the handshakes and hugs of the members as he strolled down the center aisle of the House chamber yesterday, he did something unexpected, says the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank: “He turned left” and walked through the Democratic side of the well.
After asking Republicans and Democrats to pray for each other, Ryan got the members of the gathered House to laugh when he added: “And I don’t mean pray for a conversion, all right?”
What Ryan had in mind was that the members “pray for a deeper understanding” of their mission, because from the Speaker’s rostrum “you see it so clearly” that wherever people come from, or believe, “we are all in the same boat.”
There was “rapt silence,” says Milbank, when Ryan admitted that “the House is broken.” Ryan did not want to lay blame or settle scores. But he did say he was interested in “wiping the slate clean.”
Even a veteran like Milbank confessed he “felt goose bumps” from his place in the press gallery because “in this dark hour for the House, there was a tantalizing glimpse that the institution, which has strayed so far from what the Founders created, could heal itself.”
Only gullible amateurs would allow themselves to believe all will now be different, said Milbank, or that the dysfunctional partisanship which has gridlocked Congress for more than a decade is now a thing of the past. “But only the most hardened cynic would dismiss the possibility of a fresh start,” says Milbank.
By our daily actions – Democrats, Republicans, liberals and conservatives – “we vindicate a way of life,” said Ryan, and “show by our work that free people can govern themselves.”
I’ve seen that same ideal expressed in my home state, which just last year elected a Republican to be Governor in heavily-Democratic Massachusetts.
Massachusetts has always been a trend-setter. The first shots of the American Revolution were fired here. The Industrial Revolution began here. And perhaps the fresh start the new House Speaker says he’s working to create in Washington saw its first early stirrings in Boston as well.
The ink wasn't even dry on Governor-elect Charlie Baker's acceptance speech last November before the Massachusetts Republican was getting political death threats from his own party's unreconciled right wing warning of a primary challenge in 2018 should Baker become the Governor he promised to be.
"If Charlie Baker tries to lead like a moderate and shuns conservatives like myself, yes, there will be 100 percent an effort to try to find a conservative, viable candidate to challenge him in 2018 for governor," one member of the Republican State Committee told the Boston Herald. "No question about it. Absolutely."
Baker didn't endear himself to his party's right wing when he put his money where his mouth was and named a Democrat! as his very first Cabinet pick. Shortly thereafter, Baker named another Democrat as his chief of staff who was specifically chosen for his managerial competence and "non-ideological thinking."
As one Baker advisor put it: "How many people do you know who worked in the Romney administration and also for MassPIRG?" -- a reference to the left-leaning public interest group whose expansion of the Massachusetts "bottle bill" through a popular referendum Baker categorically opposed during the election.
In picking Democrats for his administration, Baker was hoping to underscore what the Boston Globe called Baker’s “efforts to focus on bi-partisanship."
Baker's selection of Democrats to top posts also allowed me to collect on a few bets I'd made that Baker would start off his new administration by naming members from the other party to his Cabinet – perhaps even before picking fellow Republicans.
It was a sucker's wager since I knew from my experience 25 years ago as a member of the incoming Weld Administration that Baker was likely to follow the playbook of his old political mentor by bringing Democrats into his inner circle.
Bill Weld liked nothing more than making grand gestures. And recruiting Democrats into ones Cabinet was an attention-grabber that also fit the old maxim about keeping friends close and enemies closer. And so, the two Cabinet officers I served when working for Governor Weld were both Democrats - Environmental Affairs Secretary Susan Tierney and Education Secretary Piedad Robertson.
It's a fact of life in Democratic Massachusetts that there are just not enough Republicans to go around who are willing and able to fill top department posts. So, bi-partisan government when Republicans are in charge is as much a matter of mathematical necessity as ideological constancy.
But logistics aside, it is also possible that what we are seeing in Massachusetts is not merely the victory of the "establishment," anti-Tea Party wing of the GOP but a whole new species of political organization with ties to neither party and the ability to build a coalition of the willing ready to reach across the aisle and get things done.
The man Baker tapped to be chairman of his transition team, for example, is someone I shared an office with for two years when he was Undersecretary of Education for charter schools, Jim Peyser, now Baker’s Secretary of Education.
After the 2008 election, Peyser wrote an article for the Boston Globe in which he argued Massachusetts Republicans needed to distance themselves from the radicals that Republicans in other parts of the country were sending to Washington.
"Republicans used to be the party of ideas; seeking out and developing innovative, market-based approaches to solving problems," says Peyser. Yet today, Republicans "have mostly kept silent while a rising tide of know-nothingism has swept through their ranks."
Too many other voices, he said, have also adopted the harsh tone of conservative talk radio "that is disrespectful, at best." Peyser even went so far as to suggest Massachusetts Republicans might do well to rebrand themselves by adopting a new name.
"Defining a distinctly Massachusetts style of conservatism may not be enough to change the tarnished Republican brand," said Peyser. "A name change might also be in order to symbolize the fresh start and create some distance from the national party."
In Minnesota, as Peyser notes, the local Democratic Party is called the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party -- perhaps to distinguish this Midwestern working man's party from the stereotype of the effete, quiche-eating East Coast snobs who supposedly run the Democratic Party elsewhere.
Peyser suggested as this party’s new name the clunker-sounding "Independent Republican Party," which only goes to show that Jim Peyser is a much better political thinker than he is Madison Avenue ad man.
But this pragmatism is a formula that fixtures like the Boston Globe can't get enough of. In spite of its liberal reputation, the Boston Globe has a soft spot on its editorial page for good government Republicans like Baker.
Effective activist government "isn't built on good intentions," the editors said. Good results for the state's neediest and most vulnerable citizens need someone who can "focus on outcomes, learn from their errors, and preserve and replicate approaches that succeed."
Baker shares the congenital Republican aversion to raising taxes, but the Globe said liberal voters should not hold that against him or mistake Baker's characteristically Yankee penny-pinching "for an allergy to the public sector."
Baker, after all, "spent the formative years of his career deep in the weeds of government." Indeed, on the campaign trail Baker focused mainly on how he would make state government work better, not how he intended to take it apart.
Divided government has been a disaster in Washington because the GOP is controlled by rebels who do not want to be a governing party so much as an anti-government one. But obstruction need not be the result of divided government. Instead, it can "open the possibility of creative tension," the Globe said.
Facing veto-proof Democratic majorities in both houses, Baker will have no choice as Governor but to work constructively with the Legislature, the Globe said. "Likewise, the Legislature would have to engage with Baker's initiatives."
Strangely, divided government can also improve the relationships between the branches as Democratic leaders in the House and Senate no longer have to play second-fiddle to the Governor of their own party, with the petty resentments that often creates.
In short, what we may be seeing in Massachusetts are the early stirrings of what is functionally a new political party, however informal that party's connections might be.
It's not a new party arising as the self-conscious product of a plague-on-both-your-houses movement of voters estranged from both the Republican and Democratic parties alike -- like the America Elect or No Labels movements. Instead, necessity may once again be the mother of this invention as a new third party arises out of the ashes of a weakened Republican Party in places like New England, where Republicans need to bend to the practical reality they cannot govern on their own and so are compelled to reach out for help from Democrats and others or else sink into irrelevancy.
The irony of the comparative weakness of New England Republicans is that their feebleness might just win over a public naturally attracted to humility and so to those people who at least appear to want nothing more than for government to work for them.