This is What You Call Getting It Terribly Wrong

Almost as bad as the mainstream media’s pre-debate obsession with normalizing Donald Trump is the Fourth Estate’s fixation on promoting the idea that there are still reasonable, moderate Republican politicians in this country, that the GOP hasn’t completely gone goofy, that the party isn’t consumed by cynicism. Case in point: the questionable coverage of a recent executive order issued by Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker calling for extensive efforts to reduce the state’s carbon emissions.

A casual news consumer would come away with the impression that the executive order represents some sort of courageous break with the denialist dogma of Baker’s party: Boston’s NPR affiliate proclaimed that the order was the result of “persistent calls for a stronger response [to the climate crisis] from government,“ while the Boston Globe reported that in the eyes of climate hawks, “[T]he order marks an important shift in tone for a state government that, under Baker and his Democratic predecessor Deval Patrick, fought a lawsuit designed to establish specific limits on greenhouse gas emissions.”

Of course, the unreported reality is that this order likely would not even exist were it not for that lawsuit, which led to a May 2016 ruling from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court that determined the Baker administration was not in compliance with a 2008 state law mandating steep carbon cuts in the Commonwealth. Baker knows that his popularity–already threatened by scandals at the state’s Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs–would be further eroded if he simply ignored court decisions he presumably didn’t like. Why suggest that the issuance of what is, in effect, a court-ordered executive order is an act of courage?

In addition to the legal imperative for this executive order, there’s an obvious (and similarly under-acknowledged) political imperative. Baker is no moderate, but he’s no fool either. He knows that on November 6, 2018, both he and Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren will be up for re-election–and that progressives and left-leaning independents motivated to re-elect Warren could also be motivated to throw him out and replace him with a progressive Democrat. The only way Baker can avoid being a one-term governor under these circumstances is to continue promoting the idea that he’s “not that bad for a Republican”–the same idea that allowed him to narrowly defeat Martha Coakley to win the seat in 2014, the same idea that his mentor, former Republican Massachusetts Governor and current Libertarian Vice Presidential nominee William Weld, took advantage of to win a second term in 1994 on the same night that fellow Republican Mitt Romney failed miserably in his challenge to Senator Edward Kennedy. Just as Weld needed Bay Staters to ignore his party affiliation 22 years ago, so too does Baker need the Commonwealth’s citizens to ignore his party affiliation two years from now. The executive order on climate plays a key role in this calculation: Baker, who promoted his pro-choice and pro-marriage equality views in his 2014 campaign, can now run ads in 2018 declaring himself a terrific tree-hugger.

Yes, there is an argument that the specific thought process behind a pro-climate action doesn’t really matter so long as future generations benefit. Fair enough. However, in a time when every action by a Republican politician has an ulterior motive, is it too much for reporters to ask what that motive is?

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.