Corbett Crossing the Rubicon
February 4, 2013
G. Terry Madonna & Michael L.Young
Do we really learn more from our mistakes than our successes?
If we do, then Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett should be a virtual font of learning about now. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the governor has had a brutal first two years.
The ubiquitous polls tell the tale. For Corbett, it’s not a happy one. His job approval ratings are anemic, only rising above 50% once in his time in office. His “re-elect numbers” (poll-speak for “would you vote for him again?”) have been upside down for months with only a third of voters thinking he deserves another term. Barely a majority of his own party (if that) now support his re-election, while his support among women voters approaches historic lows for a major office holder.
The only really good news for Corbett is that, at the moment, he has only one potential primary opponent while rival Democrats remain far from united in choosing a candidate to run against him.
Nevertheless, Corbett’s struggles have produced considerable angst among Republicans and not a little glee among Democrats. But what it has not produced is much serious effort to explain how the governor has gotten in so much trouble with so many voters in such a short period of time.
Corbett’s problems fall into two categories: “macro-problems,” over which he has little control, and political problems mostly self-inflicted.
The macro problems would challenge any governor. Two of them are paramount.
Continuing Economic Challenges--Presidents are not the only politicians blamed for bad economic times. Governors are too. The harsh reality is that Pennsylvania’s economy is not yet in full recovery. In fact, the state’s unemployment rate is now slightly higher than the national average. Governors have survived bad times before, and Corbett can too. But he may have to do it in spite of the economy, not because of it.
The Brand problem--Corbett’s second macro problem is his political party. The GOP is struggling to define itself amid a growing public reaction with what Republican Governor Bobby Jindal termed the “stupid party.” The GOP’s problems lie predominantly with women and minorities, not coincidently also Corbett’s toughest demographic. The Republican Party didn’t create Corbett’s problems; moreover, its leaders are not much help to solve them.
The economy and the GOP’s “brand” problems while serious are unlikely to prevent his re-election. Much more threatening are four problem areas that collectively raise questions about Corbett’s political skills.
More of a Prosecutor than a Governor—At heart, Tom Corbett is a prosecutor. In the role of attorney general, he excelled. The political skills needed to be a successful governor, however, are not necessarily those of a prosecutor. Prosecutors declaim and declare, but governors must bargain, cajole, cheerlead, and even sometimes beg a little. Corbett has little of that in him. What made him a good attorney general makes him a bad politician.
A Tin Political Ear--Corbett misses the sometimes subtle tones of state politics. He has often failed to explain very well why he did things or to promote his agenda. Equally problematic has been his tendency to take on contentious issues without building consensus for them.
Weak Political Leadership--Coming into office Corbett had his party’s biggest legislative majorities in 50 years. Nonetheless, he advocated little and succeeded not at all in passing any of his big ticket items: school choice, LCB privatization, transportation funding, and the pension problem during his first two years.
Penn State & Joe Paterno--Somehow Corbett’s successful prosecution of a notorious pedophile has become a personal political liability. A vigorous debate has emerged over his handling of the case as well as the blame he received in damaging the reputation of Penn State legend Joe Paterno. Corbett was also drawn unnecessarily into a series of university controversies as a university trustee, alienating thousands of alums still aggrieved by the case. Nor is that the end of it. The new Attorney General Kathleen Kane is committed to a thorough investigation of Corbett’s handling of Sandusky case, guaranteeing the notoriety of the case will not end soon.
The obvious question: can Corbett recover in time to run successfully for re-election? In his favor, most economists expect economic recovery to accelerate over the next two years, while the “brand” problems of the GOP alone are not likely to cost Corbett re-election.
Developing the political skills necessary to recover his political support remains more problematic. Certainly, there are signs that the governor fully understands his political situation. He has been waging a vigorous media blitz over the past several months, providing more details as well as providing a rationale for some of his proposals. Nevertheless, he is far from achieving his legislative goals and still lacks the enthusiastic support of many key lawmakers for aspects of his privatizing agenda.
Corbett’s challenges are plain, his choices few. As he begins his third year in office, Corbett stands poised at his personal Rubicon, with both destiny and destination in the balance. What he does in the coming weeks and months will not only determine his fate but almost certainly the course of state politics through 2014 and beyond.