Politically Uncorrected: Death From A Thousand Cuts
The historic scope of Tom Corbett’s loss on Tuesday must be understood to place it in any meaningful perspective. In losing to Democrat Tom Wolf, he became the first Pennsylvania governor in 40 years to fail to win reelection–and his party became the first party in 60 years to fail to win two consecutive gubernatorial terms.
Even worse for purposes of comparison–except Dick Thornburgh (1979-87) who won reelection narrowly during a deep recession–Corbett’s predecessors were reelected by an average of 23 percentage points. Corbett lost by 10 points. If you are keeping track at home, that’s an astounding 33 point difference between Corbett and his predecessors.
But against this historically massive rejection of Corbett, the titular leader of the Republican Party, there is little evidence that the GOP itself was affected. State Republicans increased their control of the state House as well as the state Senate, and every one of 12 Republican congressional incumbents running for reelection was reelected.
In short–and certainly not sweet for Corbett–his loss was mostly his own, but his defeat was aided and abetted by a Republican-controlled legislature that gave him few of his major policy priorities. The larger failure was Corbett’s. He failed to grasp the challenges confronting him or to tackle them effectively, making his reelection virtually impossible.
Arguably these five were the worst:
- Failure to recover from his First Year– every governor to seek reelection but one since 1968 had a bad first year–and all of them won re-election. Milton Shapp, Bob Casey, Tom Ridge and Ed Rendell all had tough first years and low job approval ratings. But each recovered by the end of their second year. Corbett never did. Corbett’s major first-year challenge was the education budget that dominated the press coverage and the polls, ultimately becoming fodder for the campaign commercials, and framed subsequent political discussions. Corbett lost control of the narrative that he needlessly cut education spending, resulting in property tax hikes, faculty layoffs, and program curtailments. He never recovered from this perception.
- A Failed Agenda – It’s a political truism: the major factor in the reelection of any first term incumbent governor is success in enacting major parts of their agenda. Corbett achieved less of his professed agenda than any governor in modern times. His inability to secure his major agenda, including pension relief and liquor privatization together with his unwillingness to exploit his one big legislative achievement, $2.4 billion yearly in road, bridges, and mass transit funding, left him with little to convince voters that he deserved another term.
- Modest level of Political Skills – Corbett seemed to eschew the political style cultivated by most major politicians. Notable was his failure to develop a working relationship with the legislative leadership of his own party, thereby limiting their enthusiasm for his agenda. He was further hobbled by division in his own legislative party between a conservative House and a more moderate Senate. Relatedly, Corbett failed to communicate very well either the objectives or the accomplishments of his administration. His political opponent was able to define him and did. Perhaps the quintessential example of Corbett’s communication problems was his failure to ever give the electorate a compelling reason to reelect him.
- An Ideological Bent and an Inflexible Style – Corbett took office faced with some daunting problems, not the least of which was a large budget shortfall and a looming structural deficit. But he tackled these and other problems shackled with a promise to not raise taxes accompanied by a propensity to be inflexible when confronting changed conditions. He failed adequately to address the need for more school district spending. He pushed obsessively to privatize operations of state government, long after it became obvious that voter priorities lay elsewhere. He failed to adapt when the expectations of the electorate shifted. Voters, for example, overwhelmingly favored raising more revenues through an extraction tax while expanding other state services. Corbett ignored this while he and the legislature simultaneously failed to deal with the state’s $2 billion structural deficit. All of this weighed heavily upon a governor seeking reelection who had pledged to put the fiscal affairs of the state in good order.
- The Penn State Matter – Corbett suffered a loss of popularity from the handling of the Jerry Sandusky prosecution, his acceptance of the Freeh report, and the NCAA sanctions against the university. The fallout cost Corbett badly needed support from many Penn State alums, especially among the university’s mid-state alumni and loyal support base, many of whom typically vote Republican. The governor could have let the process play out by not participating openly and actively on the Penn State Board as his predecessors had. He did none of that. Instead he stepped in personally, endorsed the now controversial Freeh report, supported the firing of Joe Paterno, and the subsequent sanctions against the university. A more seasoned politician would have avoided any direct involvement.
Finally, Corbett lost because he could not recover from the judgment too many voters made from the outset of his time in office. Too late did his campaign become focused or did he show the energy and persistence that might have saved him. But it was a case of much too little, much too late. Corbett ultimately was the wrong man at the wrong time in the wrong office.