Whatever one thinks of Governor Tom Corbett — whether you like him or not; think he’s been a good governor or not; favor him to win a second term or not — almost everyone agrees the few remaining days before the legislature’s summer recess will be the critical testing point of his gubernatorial tenure. What happens or doesn’t between now and then might well determine Corbett’s personal political fate while powerfully influencing state politics for at least the next four years.
Many political leaders experience similar critical moments when their careers hang in the balance. Most of Pennsylvania’s governors in modern times have faced such moments of testing.
What is unique about Corbett, however, is that his problems have grown as his political strength has ebbed. His job performance remains remarkably low as poll after poll has shown. He finds himself mired in a classic “catch 22:” to regain his popularity he needs to deliver on some of his much ballyhooed promises, but to deliver on those promises he needs enough popularity to compel lawmakers to support him.
For Corbett now it’s all about his “agenda,” the one he set out for himself and has yet to achieve. There is more than a little unfairness here. Corbett so far has managed to balance his budgets, despite facing a $4.2 billion deficit, and pass them on time — something the previous governor never accomplished during his eight-year tenure. Moreover, Corbett has opposed tax increases — something he also promised and most voters want.
But voters expect budgets to be passed on time without tax hikes (even though they don’t always get it). For many voters, it’s the classic “what have you done for me lately Governor Corbett?” The answer from many apparently is “not much.” Behind this judgment is the electoral consensus that Corbett has been ineffective.
In particular, he has failed to deliver the three prime policies repeatedly promised: pension reform, liquor privatization, and transportation funding. Fairly or unfairly these three agenda items have become litmus tests of Corbett’s gubernatorial leadership.
Without significant progress on these agenda items many doubt that Corbett can be re-elected in 2014.
So what are the prospects for a Corbett midsummer turnaround? At first blush they look pretty good. His party commands majorities in both houses of the legislature — and every incumbent Republican house member and 15 Republican senators will be on the ballot with him in 2014 — giving them plenty of motivation to help out. Moreover, Corbett for the first time in his tenure is more engaged in the process, cooperating closely with House and Senate leadership, even signaling that he will support alternatives to his proposals.
But that may be where the good news ends. Republicans may control the legislature, but at the moment they lack consensus on Corbett’s major agenda items, particularly pension reform and liquor privatization. On pension reform there is little appetite evident for Corbett’s ambitious proposals in the Senate, which means that issue might be shelved until fall or later. Similarly on liquor privatization a deeply divided legislature is likely to produce a sharply scaled back hybrid privatization. Even on transportation funding Corbett faces big divisions between Republicans in the House and Senate.
In short, Corbett may get “half a loaf” from his own legislature. And he may feel himself lucky to get that. Corbett’s flagging political clout makes it possible for lawmakers to defy him if they wish. And some appear ready to do so.
True, few incumbent legislators can be oblivious to the fact they would be on the same ballot with him in 2014. A weak gubernatorial candidate inevitably erodes support for “down-ballot” candidates, something no legislative candidate can ignore.
But the larger political reality is that few, if any, legislators need the governor’s help to get re-elected. The legislature now consists of 253 independent individuals beholden not to the governor or their own legislative leaders. Most of them get there on their own and stay there the same way.
Even worse, governors and legislative leaders no longer have the tools they once possessed to coerce legislators to do their bidding. The carrots to procure votes in the legislature are gone and so is the stick — all making it more difficult to pass big agenda items, let alone that of a struggling governor.
Gone, for example, is the legislative bribery, known euphemistically in Pennsylvania as WAMs or walking around money, the now reviled practice of secretly funneling pork barrel spending to cooperative lawmakers who voted for legislation they otherwise would not support.
So the compelling question becomes: Will Corbett get something to take to the voters next year — his half a loaf — or does he come up empty, long on promises and short on performance?
If it’s at least half a loaf, running with the wind of an improving economy at his back in 2014, and a struggling Obama administration in Washington, Corbett could be re-elected. Certainly his chances improve.
But if he comes away with little or none of his agenda, GOP prospects for 2014 diminish considerably. Some national pundits are even speculating that Corbett might step aside. That seems unlikely. But Republican leaders might wish he had.
Madonna is Professor of Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, and Young is a former Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Penn State University and Managing Partner of Michael Young Strategic Research. Madonna and Young encourage responses to the column and can be reached, respectively, at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.