There are specific, definitive ways to measure a governor’s accomplishments.

How many legislative initiatives did he produce? How many bills did he sign? How many roads and bridges did he build? How many blockbuster programs did he enact?

And there are popular, predictable ways to measure a governor’s leadership.

Did he challenge recalcitrant legislators in high-profile battles to advance his agenda? Did he take on his critics in media-driven dust-ups to show his constituents he was fighting for their interests?

In eight years as governor of Maine, John Baldacci produced his share of initiatives, signed his share of bills and even delivered a blockbuster program or two.

As for flamboyant, contentious displays of leadership: not his style.

A far more meaningful test for assessing any governor’s leadership and performance in office — and it’s especially true in Baldacci’s case — is to look at what he did when faced with difficult choices and hard decisions.

Throughout his two terms as Maine’s chief executive, Baldacci had to deal with a state and national economy that provided few opportunities for costly programs and left little time for self-promotion. He had his hands full keeping the state afloat.

POINTS OF VIEW DIFFER

As we saw last week in a two-part retrospective by MaineToday Media State House reporter Susan M. Cover, experts and political observers differ in their evaluation of Baldacci.

To some extent, at least, the political leanings and policy preferences of those judging the governor determine their view of his tenure at the State House.

Advocates of universal health care, for example, believe he failed to deliver what he promised when he introduced the state’s Dirigo health plan; Dirigo’s opponents believe it was an overpriced boondoggle that never should have seen the light of day.

Everyone hates Dirigo — except, as Baldacci is quick to note, the people who are alive and well today because the program gave them access to health care.

In a way, the first seven years of Baldacci’s governorship — the legislative initiatives, the ill-fated attempts to reform the state’s tax code and legalize same-sex marriage, the still-in-progress effort to consolidate local school districts — are irrelevant to this discussion.

The most critical year for Baldacci and the people of Maine was his last as governor, a year in which he reacted to the worst recession since the Great Depression with steadfast leadership and quietly courageous decision-making.

When the Legislature convened a year ago, Baldacci presented lawmakers with a supplemental budget calling for spending reductions in nearly every area of state government. The cuts affected agencies, special interests and individuals from one end of Maine to the other.

Those whose budgets were targeted and their advocates in the media and the public began screaming for tax increases to forestall the cutbacks.

STAUNCH NO-TAX STAND

Baldacci stood his ground. It would be foolish and destructive to the economy to raises taxes when the state was trying to recover from a recession, he said. He would not support a tax increase, and if the Legislature enacted one, he would veto it. It never came to that.

His position cost him support from progressives who believed the lifelong Democrat’s budget cuts unfairly singled out social services. Those cuts notwithstanding, Baldacci was adamant in promising to preserve the state’s “safety net” for the underprivileged — and that cost him support from conservative Republicans who believed his budget cuts were insufficient. “I found a way to alienate both parties,” Baldacci told Cover.

His willingness to displease everyone and his impressive capacity for graciously and patiently enduring the criticism that followed set Baldacci apart, as a politician and as a man. He set an example that future governors would be wise to follow; he set a standard that successors will find difficult to match.

And so, as the departing governor hands over the reins of state government to Republican Gov.-elect Paul LePage this week, it’s not difficult to assess Baldacci’s performance in office. John Baldacci did what had to be done for eight difficult years, and he did it with grace, dignity and courage. The state of Maine is better for his service.