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Keller @ Large: Gov. Charlie Baker's Final State Of The Commonwealth Was A Victory Lap

BOSTON (CBS) - It could have been a wake of sorts, the final State of the Commonwealth speech by Gov. Charlie Baker.

Instead, it was a victory lap.

Last year's speech was given live with no audience from inside the near-deserted State House due to the pandemic. This time Baker, now a lame duck, passed up a chance to needle the Democrats for still keeping the State House closed by declaring, Reagan style, "Mr. Speaker, open up those doors!"

Instead, a crowd including the state's leading Democrats were herded into a hall at the Hynes and treated to a glowing Baker eulogy by Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, who called the boss "our very own GOAT." Mercifully, the pols were able to mostly hide behind their masks, although some eye-rolling was evident.

And when Baker took the stage, he reprised his greatest hits, an impressive and suitably wonky litany of national models created, infrastructure modernized, and municipal vulnerability planning programs established. Democratic applause seemed warmest when he came to the RINO section of his resume, massive school spending hikes and police reform.

WATCH: Full State Of The Commonwealth Address

The middle innings were devoted to COVID, mostly a stream of well-deserved praise for public-facing workers in health care and commerce and the troops and activists who backed them up. Baker has delegated the vaccine mandate mop-up operation to the local officials, and a section on vaccination rates was missing the exhortations to the unvaxxed we used to hear from him. The sharpest elbow he threw their way was this nifty double-entendre: "There's an old expression about what you learn about people when they are truly tested."

Can a lame duck year be a success if the duck's agenda is overwhelmed by legislative hoisin sauce? We're about to find out, with Baker challenging the Legislature to move on closing violent-offender and domestic abuser loopholes in the criminal code, and a health care reform bill focusing on mental health issues.

But the real test of Baker's exit year clout and willingness to use it may come over tax policy. "The pandemic has proven that we now live in a new world where people have more flexibility about where they live and work," he said, code words that usually precede opposition to new taxes like the Millionaire's Tax headed for the November ballot.

But Baker never mentioned the push to create what voters statewide have always opposed before – a graduated income tax. Instead, he called for tax breaks: for children and dependents, renters, seniors and the working poor. Perhaps the masked legislators on hand were left to wonder if that's the deal he's offering, you can have your tax hike without resistance in exchange for those.

The secret to Baker's legislative success has been his understanding that he is grossly outnumbered, a heavy underdog in any partisan or ideological fight. But he showed he can win over most voters – at least, Democrats and independents, who account for nine of ten voters anyway – by putting that all aside, keeping his cool, and getting stuff done.

It cost him any realistic shot at a third term, well before the First Lady had enough of dirty hypodermic needles being dumped on her front walk, because for the Trumpist legions who dominate the state GOP and Baker's harshest critics on the left, partisan and ideological fights aren't just the main thing, they're the only thing. So Tuesday night he threw them an elbow on his way out.

"The answer to the swirl and chaos of modern life is not more of the same poisonous brew," he said after describing the toxic political environment. "The answer is to stand up and accept the responsibility that comes with the work. To understand that trust is earned, and collaboration is how difficult things get done."

Baker's turn at practicing that credo is coming to a relatively successful end. One day soon we'll know if Tuesday night was a wake for that approach to governing, or a validation of its future.

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