Patrick Kerkstra: Roots of Corbett's woes
There are a lot of theories out there to explain Gov. Corbett's phenomenally poor polling numbers. Lousy relations with lawmakers. Career prosecutors can't govern. The Penn State fiasco.
Corbett is increasingly seen by voters as callous - even mean-spirited - without having any compelling reforms or accomplishments to show for his unsparing assault on state spending, particularly in education and social services.
Mean can be politically effective (hey there, Chris Christie). But the tough love approach only works when moderate voters perceive that budget sacrifices serve a greater purpose. Take Christie's pension reforms, which will have a lasting impact on New Jersey's financial future. Or consider Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's demolition of collective bargaining.
Those were divisive changes, to be sure, but those governors at least have a narrative to sell. As a state, we have to clean up our act, they tell voters, and these are changes that will make us competitive and fiscally stable in the future.
So what is Corbett's narrative?
He can and does point to the fact that he has balanced the state budget. That's an accomplishment. But Corbett hasn't done much that I can see to ensure long-term fiscal stability. His pension reform bids have gone nowhere, and there's no evidence that he's set the state up for growth in a way that will generate increased tax revenue in the future.
Corbett talks a lot about job creation, but Pennsylvania's unemployment rate is about the same as the national average, and state job growth has been anemic since he took office (partly because the state and local governments have shed 45,000 public-sector jobs since January 2011).
How about the natural gas sector, the industry Corbett has gone to such lengths to protect from burdensome taxes? The truth is a bit hard to figure, with wildly varying estimates from as little as 10,000 jobs since the end of 2010 (which seems low, from the left-leaning Keystone Research Center) to equally dubious industry-funded extrapolations of indirect hirings topping 100,000 a year.
Either way, the Marcellus Shale boom has not been near enough to convince voters that Corbett's agenda of budget austerity and business-friendly tax policies are building the foundation of a dynamic new economy.
The cuts, on the other hand, are obvious to all.
Taken individually, any of the Corbett administration's cutbacks might not be all that politically disastrous. After all, starving the Philadelphia School District of funding won't hurt a Republican like Corbett in most of the state. Eliminating the $150 million general assistance program - which delivered $205 a month in cash payments to the state's poorest citizens - is likely just fine with a majority of Pennsylvanians. And there are plenty of swing voters who would cheer the Corbett administration's increased welfare application rejection rate, a trend revealed by The Inquirer's Alfred Lubrano this week.
But put it all together - along with some politically risky propositions such as cuts to higher education - and Corbett has left voters with the distinct impression that he's uncaring.
Belatedly, Corbett seems to have realized this, hence his contortions on accepting federal cash to expand Medicaid in a way his conservative base might accept. Maybe it will help. But it's just as likely that it is too late to change voter impressions.
After nearly three years of forcing the state to drink some harsh medicine, there's no sign Corbett's prescriptions have fixed any of Pennsylvania's long-term troubles. That's a lethal political combination.
Patrick Kerkstra is a freelance journalist and former Inquirer staff writer. He can be reached at Patrick@PatrickKerkstra.com or on Twitter @pkerkstra.