Bruce Rauner’s administration is on the brink of collapse. Only a deft hand, which Rauner has struggled to produce, can jerk it from the ledge on which it teeters.
Illinois’ freshman Republican governor had no choice Wednesday but sack his freshly hired communications staff. In a vacuum, firing a slew of tone-deaf staffers who defended a political cartoon posted by their former employer, right-wing think tank Illinois Policy Institute, was defensible and necessary.
The background is straight forward. The right-wing think tank tossed out a racially charged political cartoon, intended to take a shot at Chicago’s over-use of tax increment financing. Democrats and liberals pounded the policy institute. Rauner, too, a long-time benefactor of the organization, took a beating. Just last month, Rauner replaced his top staff with a slew of policy institute partisans. Those partisans inflamed the issue in its defense of the cartoon, saying Rauner couldn’t offer much comment because he’s a “white male.”
And it all happened as the country again struggles with racial tensions after Charlottesville, Virginia.
The Wednesday Night Massacre at the governor’s office would be standard operating procedure in normal times. But these aren’t normal times for the Republican governor.
Rauner was hobbled last month, when several Republicans in the General Assembly joined Democrats to override his veto and end a two-year budgetary impasse. Rauner responded to the damaging defeat by sacking much of his top staff, replacing them with communications and policy advisers from Illinois Policy Institute. It was, after all, his decision to move hard right. He knew what he was getting when he sacked his longtime staff after the budget loss and replaced it with people with established histories in right-wing politics.
Rauner gambled. Rauner lost.
After just 37 days, another staff purge suggests an administration without a clear playbook. And the timing couldn’t be worse. He was, until Thursday, wrapped in yet another showdown with the General Assembly over school funding. Rauner was left holding the bag for his now-sacked staff that was the architect of the rank parochialism that formed the basis for his argument against the school funding overhaul.
The past five weeks haven’t gone well.
Nor have the past two and a half years. And, here, is the real threat to Rauner’s political capital and retention of his seat in 2018. Basically nothing of value was accomplished after more than two years of budgetary strife. All those systemic failings Rauner correctly identified remain in place. His messaging — commingling re-election politicking with policy — has undermined any ability to actually make deals with General Assembly Democrats. Republicans in the Legislature are, again, under pressure to break from him on the school funding issue and override his veto.
Wednesday night’s staff shakeup is just another opening for his political opponents. It’s just another excuse for his Democratic gubernatorial challengers to tee off. It’s just another signal of an administration that, after years, just hasn’t been able to gain traction.
Rauner’s general analysis of that which ills Illinois wasn’t incorrect. But his inability to win the argument dogs him. It began with a short-sighted attempt to create right to work zones as soon as he entered office, immediately souring any future relationship with unions. It became more obvious as each piece of his “Turn Around Agenda” fell away. Desperation oozed this summer as Rauner pounded on General Assembly Democrats in stops throughout he state, only to ultimately lose the budget battle because he lost members of his own party.
Bruce Rauner’s administration has been on the brink for weeks now. But, on Wednesday, it became incredibly clear that he has no idea how to salvage it.