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Politically Uncorrected: Corbett Crossing the Rubicon

corbettDo 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 a 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 archiving his legislature 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.

13 Responses

  1. “Jeremy on February 5, 2013 at 8:23 am said:
    48% of PSEA (the teacher’s union) voted for Corbett in 2010. I believe that to be almost 100,000 votes. Now times that by a spouse and parents, the number can be upwards of 400,000.
    I will be sure to call all my relatives and ask them not to vote for Corbett.

    He is toast.”

    Have you found a Transit Worker, State Store Worker, Public School Worker, College or University Worker, Environmentalist, or Penn State Alum that is going to vote for this ice hole? I sure hope Pennsylvanian$ can $ee hi$ pattern$?

  2. The Governor’s right wing competition has released what HE would do: reduce corporate and personal income taxes AND eliminate local property taxes. Now, there is some real competition within Jindal’s ‘Party of Stupid”, more GOP politicians with poor math skills.

  3. Madonna? Polls? No one with an IQ higher than their shoe size pays attention to the polls or the media in PA when a Republican is the subject.
    Castor? He is nothing more than a career politician who would walk over his firstborn in order to ascend to higher office. We need public servants, not egomaniacal career politicians.

  4. Senators Corman and Pileggi spend money we don’t have for projects we don’t need. “Infrastructure” spending is another way of saying union or prevailing wage jobs costing Pennsylvania’s taxpayer tens of millions. Republican leadership is not The Forgotten Taxpayer’s friend.

  5. 48% of PSEA (the teacher’s union) voted for Corbett in 2010. I believe that to be almost 100,000 votes. Now times that by a spouse and parents, the number can be upwards of 400,000.
    I will be sure to call all my relatives and ask them not to vote for Corbett.

    He is toast.

  6. Isaac brings up a very good point. In 2010, Corbett received a lot of votes from teachers and believe it or not, public employees. Then, he turns around and puts the hammer to them. I guess the moral of the story is if that is how you treat your friends, how bad are you to your enemies.

    Now, with his son-in-law in hot water and found with marked money, it just reinforces the narrative that the Governor and the people close to him feel that they live under a different set of rules than the rest of us.

  7. We as a party have to be SMART and go with Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi. Southeastern moderate who will easily defeat whoever the Dumbacrats want to throw at him. Corbett couldn’t get elected dogcatcher after stupid remarks about women and abortion and causing so many teachers to lose their jobs.

  8. I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that laying off 10,000 teachers wasn’t good for the PA economy. Infrastructure spending produces some of the best economic returns on taxpayer dollars and yet Gov. Corbett has dragged his feet on a comprehensive transportation bill for over two years. Republican state Senator Jake Corman has been championing the latter for years now; perhaps it’s time the governor listened to one of the top senators in his own party who isn’t putting forward divisive political legislation for a change.

  9. Madonna and Young, expertly, restate the obvious. Bruce Castor issued a very dynamic agenda today.

    Pennsylvania’s Republican Party are dominated by monopoly labor unions driving up cost of government without increase in either quality or quantity of services.

    Who pays for the cost of unionized government employees? The Forgotten Taxpayer.

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