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Politically Uncorrected: Give ‘Em Hell Tom

Corbett Campaigning“Running against Harrisburg” is a popular strategy. Most modern gubernatorial candidates seeking a first term, including incumbent Gov. Tom Corbett, have “run against Harrisburg.” They focus their campaigns heavily toward attacking Harrisburg “insiders” and the “Harrisburg culture.”

But while most gubernatorial aspirants run against Harrisburg, no incumbent governor seeking a second term has ever done so — until now.

Corbett is gearing up to run against Harrisburg for reelection to a second term, a strategy he successfully employed in his bid for the office in 2010, when he promised to deal with an exploding budget deficit, bloated bureaucracy and a Democratic Party eight years in office. He proposed to privatize many aspects of state government, reduce the imprint of state government, and make government more accountable.

His highest priorities – privatizing management of the state lottery and the state liquor stores, followed by fixing the state’s troubled pension system – have been stymied by the Harrisburg culture, which is notoriously resistant to change.

While confronting Harrisburg’s more or less chronic aversion to reform, Corbett also fell afoul of the sharp partisan polarization now embedded in both state and national politics. He was trapped between the factionalism in his own party in the state House, and the moderates in the Senate – between the reform minimalists and hard-charging reformers. Corbett’s own failure to build relationships with legislative leaders didn’t help him.

A strongly opinionated, often uncompromising governor, Corbett confronted an equally unbending, sometimes obstinate, legislature. Immovable object meets irresistible force.

What actually happens when an unmovable object meets an irresistible force has fascinated philosophers for centuries. In Pennsylvania politics, however, we already know the answer to this classic paradox. What happens is nothing – more precisely a long series of nothings as in no LCB reform, no pension reform, no ethics reform, no campaign finance reform, no lobbyist reform, etc.


Consequently, Tom Corbett, after four years in office, has little to show for it – unless you count mounting frustration, growing animosities, a divided legislative leadership, and failure to enact most of his major agenda.

So Corbett, making a virtue out of a necessity, is becoming the first gubernatorial candidate in history to run against Harrisburg for a second term.

So far, so good. Actually, running against Harrisburg has not just been a favorite strategy in state politics; it has also been a successful strategy. In modern times, going back to Gov. Milton Shapp in the 1970s, at least four governors, including Corbett, have earned a first term sticking it to the “Harrisburg culture.”

Moreover, one could argue that “Harrisburg,” with its cliques, obstructionist tactics, recurring corrupt behavior and anti-reform ethos really is the problem. Democratic President Harry Truman, also trailing badly in the polls, made something like this work for him in his classic 1948 comeback, running against a “do nothing” Republican Congress. However, unlike Corbett’s situation, Truman’s party didn’t control Congress, which made Truman’s strategy credible. Still, why can’t Tom Corbett do the same?

Give ’em hell, Tom. Or not.

Pennsylvania’s political observers have pointed out the challenges Corbett faces running against Harrisburg.

Unlike four years ago, he can’t run as an outsider riding into town on a white horse to round up the bad guys. As incumbent governor, Corbett is the quintessential insider, believed by many voters to be part of the problem. Corbett has become one of the bad guys.

Then, there is the inconvenient fact that the Harrisburg he runs against is controlled by his own party. Corbett is a Republican, and Republicans control the legislature. The average voter may not spend a lot of time thinking about politics, but they are likely to think about this particular conundrum: Why can’t Corbett work with his own party?

Last, but not least, is the political problem. If Corbett runs against his own party’s legislative leadership, it could divide Republicans, leaving them weaker for the fall election. In the latest Franklin & Marshall Poll, Corbett now only attracts 55 percent of his own party’s voters.  Add to this challenge a bitter fight with the legislature, and it becomes more and more likely that Republican voters will come to view an embattled governor as an apparent loser. They may not show up at the polls election day.

Notwithstanding these manifold problems, running against Harrisburg might still be Corbett’s best bad choice in a race with few good choices. It’s a strategy born equally of frustration and desperation. No one has ever done, or even attempted, what Corbett is trying to do. But then no governor in modern times has ever found himself where Corbett finds himself today.

In running against Harrisburg, Corbett is also running against himself. In indicting Harrisburg for its failures, he is also indicting himself for his failures. In advocating change, he is risking that voters might change much more than he wants.

Corbett, who has long supported Internet gambling, is rolling the dice one last time. It’s a long shot, to be sure, but he probably has to take it. Many believe Corbett may go down to defeat in November, but if so, he’s not going quietly.

8 Responses

  1. Isik, its clear that guvenore corbitt don’t need to give nobody no hell becuz he all ready is guvenor and has lot of power but he aint never abuse that.

  2. “Give ’em hell, Tom”

    Not sure what a “hell Tom” would be so I’m guessing you neglected the comma to offset the vocative in the headline. Drs. Madonna and Young got it right in the body.

  3. Years ago, I heard Lou Barletta debate a lib-prof @ Temple U; he was knowledgeable and unflappable.

    Corbett would do well to acquire guidance from him regarding the legalities of what is occurring and, specifically, what powers a governor can comfortably exert.

    Although these data serve to eliminate the “inevitablity” concern, they merely serve to define–from the R perspective–the yeoman’s task that confronts Corbett/Cawley; the “Base” has yet to engage, and this is why [with half of the summer already passed] I’m working to dispel the image of the GOP being anti-LGBTQ.

  4. Illegal immigration is THE issue in everywhere in PA but Philly. If Corbett issues Exec Order refusing to allow any PA money for illegals, and comes out strong, he will win huge amount of democrat voters. And the more he is criticized by the media, the stronger his support will be.
    Its incredible that only Congressman Lou Barletta has tapped into the anger and frustration of PA voters on this issue.

  5. This illustrates the point I’ve made consistently [as I have also called upon Corbett to hold an “endless press-conference” themed on his handling of Sandusky]; when people start thinking about the issues [and factor-in abhorrence for Dems who are aligned with increasingly unpopular BHO].

  6. Two things.

    1 – This poll also has people voting for a generic Republican over a generic Democrat for Congress by a margin of 50-38.

    Now I’m willing to believe Rs might be winning the generic ballot question, but by 12 points? In 2010 — the best Republican year since ever — they only won the Congressional vote statewide by 4. So somehow this year they are doing 300% better?

    2 – This same pollster finds Governor Sam Brownback up 13 points in Kansas. The previous two polls found Brownback DOWN 6 and 8, respectively.

    So I’m going to hold me breath on this one.

  7. Davis Daono, don’t right off guvenore corbit too early hes alredy startng to move in the poles and like I says befor he is gonna win in a land slide

  8. “But while most gubernatorial aspirants run against Harrisburg, no incumbent governor seeking a second term has ever done so — until now.”

    Well, no party’s lost the Gov seat after one term before either… until now. 🙂

    Corbett doesn’t seem to realize that he’s so deeply unpopular that “Harrisburg” is running against him.

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