SPRINGFIELD--Gov. Rod Blagojevich gave a brilliant political speech, disguised as an annual budget address, again promising no income tax or general sales tax increase, banking on economic growth to help him deliver goodies that, he hopes, will guarantee his reelection later this year.
In a fighting speech reminiscent of Harry Truman, attacking the so-called "special interests," the youthful governor set himself up as the advocate of a "say yes" budget, callng on the legislature to "say yes" to more funds for education, in particular for pre-school education for every Illinois child, expanded school payments and an improved heatlh program. Because there is room to "say no" he called on the legislature to close so-called tax loopholes for business--pitting business as a special interest as agailnst pre-schoolers and health-deprived senior citizens. As such for a curly-haired fan of Elvis Presley which the governor is, it was a performance worthy of Huey Long in the 1930s, long before the governor was born.. He drew the line between liberal interest groups and business--declaring it a "special interest" to grant tax relief to the economic engine that provides jobs. To remedy that, he outlined a "jobs program" that called for subsidies. In essence, it was a broadly liberal speech reminiscent of the hey-day of the New Deal. He declared that the multi-billion dollar Bush Medicare program which has been condemned by many conservatives, as not sufficient to meet the needs of the time. In doing so, he positioned himself as a potential candidate for president by unfurling a heavily liberal program in contrast to the pale pastels that some presidential candidates are supporting.
Blagojevich's manner of presentation has improved 100 percent from his performance in past years. He read from a teleprompter with only few mistakes, pointing to charts showing the deficits he inherited from George Ryan. He made a case that sounded convincing to average citizens who haven't followed the details of pension borrowing and other gimmicks that have prompted some Demcrats as well as most Republicans to assail his governance. But the governor has done successfully what many liberals have done before--sketch an attractive program of services expansion, beckoning to the benefits that accrue from giving pre-schoolers educational opportunities, pointing to the human needs of the elderly who deserve expanded health care--and insinuating that his opponents will be tools of special interest and greed. That rhetorical device was patented by Long, modified with deft literary flourish by Franklin D. Roosevelt and re-packaged in fighting Missouri language by Harry Truman. To hear Blagojevich re-cycle it brought back memories of a Democratic party that succeeded by pinning the "greed" label on its opponents. For those who are weary of the old-style rhetoric, it showed a return to partisan, meat and potato politics--but they shouldn't pass it off as passe, for Democrats have been elected and reelected with this fighting style of campaigning for generations. To oppose this scenario, Republicans will almost instantly revert to the green-eyeshade, accountant style of rebuke which historically has not found much favor in an era of populist politics. In picturing those who oppose him, the TV cameras focused on Judy Baar Topinka, slouched like a matronly grandmother, working on her hand-held computer; State Sen. Bill Brady (Bloomington) conversing with a colleague and not paying rapt attention.
The reception by the legislature was interesting. It gave Blagojevich a rather grudging (I thought) reception as he strode inrto the House chamber, shaking hands right and left. The applause was subdued, pro-forma and so-so--but when Blagojevich got rolling with his "say yes" to kids and "say no" to the selfish interests, the Democratic legislature began to get worked up. At several points during the well-written, well-rehearsed speech, Blagojevich departed from the teleprompter to chide the legiislature, kid-style, with cracks like: "I thought that would wake you up!" Every time he did this, his punch lines were greeted with hollow silence, emblematic of a legislature that while controlled by his own party, withholds approval from him because of the indifference of attention he has given to its members. But it is clear that Blagojevich is not interested in portraying himself as one who is cozy with the legislature but who stands apart from them, playing to the grandstands. While it turns off those serious students of government who believe a mark of a successful administration is the ability to get along with members, it is clear that Blagojevich is following a vastly different strategy which is indebted to Bill Clinton. On other aspects, he imitates Ronald Reagan for whom Blagojevich voted twice.
Clinton it was who invented "triangularization," capitalizing on public cynicism in both parties and posturing himself on the side of a third way. From the very start, Blagojevich has not been inured to follow the regular path, even taking risks to chart a third way. He would rather not live in the gubernatorial mansion in Springfield despite having won his reelection in the southern part of the state. He does not present himself as other governors have as a workaholic, but comes up with incremental issues that bite off chunks of public approval. He is totally disinterested in the details of governance, witness his support of what he calls "stem cells" but which is actually embryonic stem cell research. To start a pilot program using state funds for embryonic research that pro-lifers attest is the exploitation of unborn life for research, a program that has not had any success, Blagojevich signed an executive order conveying funds that may very well be unconstitutional--but he lets the conservatives haggle about the details while taking the bows for "stem cell" which is a flagrant mis-labeling of what he has done. Reagan evaded discussion of how authentic the Contras in Nigaragua were by calling them "freedom fighters in the mode of our own founding fathers." While other governors seem to proceed along traditional lines, outlining programs consonant with their budgets, Blagojevich stitches together exciting projects that capture public attention and seemingly defers until tomorrow the prospect of whether or not the projects will work.
The reception of the legislature to Blagojevich was definitely mixed. State Rep. Jack Franks (D-Woodstock) who was an early supporter but who soured on the governor, didn't rise in applause as did some of his Democratic colleagues, nor did Franks break his arms applauding, although he clapped weakly at one point. The attitude of the legislature seemed to be bemusement: here is a kid who is evidently comfortable skipping the long hours of consultation and sausage making of governance for the media spotlight, bankng that the public is not very interested in the details only the tinsel and drum beat of entertainment.
Can Blagojevich pull it off a second time? My view is that he can if he faces Topinka, even given that she's leading in the GOP polls. Reason: she represents the tired old pols whom the governor seems to want to contrast himself with. Against those who haven't ever been elected---Oberweis and Gidwitz---the going might be a littrle harder for the governor once the recognition kicks in about their particular views. Gidwitz is a long way down in the polls but seems to have a bottomless treasury and remarkably, he is not perceived by the Republican electorate as the social liberal he is: thereby taking some of the percentages away from Oberweis. Also the fact that Gidwitz is starting to open up on Topinka may win him favor from conservatiives. Oberweis might very well give Blagojevich a fight the governor doesn't want--on ideology. The fact that Illinois is a blue state does not compute when philosophical belief is presented attractively. Brady is, of course, a fresh face but I really believe he's starting to behave like a lost cause--not by his own fault but because he doesn't have sufficient money.
Every time I see Topinka, I see someone who is weighed down with age, gnarled hands, an old face and an old style of incumbency which might very well ratify what Blagojevich is seeking to stand against. I don't find that contrast with Gidwitz, Oberweis or Brady. Topinka kind of looks like she could be Blagojevich's mother, the penny-pinching Czech who buys her clothes at second-hand shops. That picture may play well when you're running as State Treasurer with the ethnic groups whiich thrill to her accordion, but not necessarily so in a prime time govenrorship race.