A kinder, gentler, less confrontational Gov. Bruce Rauner stopped by Friday morning for an extended interview with the Tribune Editorial Board.
His visit came a day after he delivered an extraordinary “reset” speech to supporters in which he admitted that he’d been overaggressive in his first term in an attempt to “shock state government into shape,” and he professed a new commitment to “building consensus” and accepting “incremental improvements” by working across the aisle.
“I’ve learned that it’s … important to build mutual understanding — to find common ground with those elected officials who want to change things for the better,” he said in his speech. “I’ve learned to listen. It takes wisdom to listen to those who disagree with you, wisdom that can be gained only through years of tough political fights.”
Well, no. Most of us pick up this sort of wisdom in grade school. “You can’t always get your way. It pays to understand the viewpoints of those with whom you disagree and seek compromise resolutions.” These insights arrive at about the same time as “it’s good to share your toys” and “it’s bad to run with scissors.”
I’ve long been a critic of Rauner’s blustery style. He narrowly beat an unpopular incumbent Democrat, Pat Quinn, in 2014, and came to office with super majorities of Democrats lined up against him in both legislative chambers. Yet he swaggered down to Springfield as though he had a mandate to enact the sweeping set of changes contained in his 44-point “turnaround agenda.”
One part of his strategy to win hearts and minds was to hurl personal insults at the Democratic legislative leaders — a misstep he euphemistically described Thursday as an excess of “courage.”
A second part of his strategy was to hold state budget negotiations hostage — refuse to negotiate on spending and taxes, allow the state to sink further into debt — unless the Democrats yielded on an ever-shifting subset of his demands.
Predictably, inevitably and, for those who suffered with the loss of state services during the 736-day budget stalemate, painfully, it didn’t work. Rauner got nothing.
The rebooted Rauner who visited our offices Friday expressed regret that he didn’t instead start off smaller and collaborate with his political foes to identify policy changes with bipartisan support. That way he could have gone “step by step” in the direction of his vision instead of being at perpetual and destructive loggerheads with the Democrats.
“Change takes time,” he said twice, underscoring his request for more such time in office.
So “Shake up Springfield!” — one of his 2014 slogan — has become the more realistic “Give Springfield a Gentle Nudge!”
Hope and small change.
And, hey. It’s not such a terrible message: Let’s have a pragmatic, centrist Republican in the governor’s mansion to act as a guardrail against full Democratic control of state government. Have him push for tweaks in state law that have proven successful elsewhere, and we’ll inch along.
But does he mean it? A key question that many voters have is whether four more years of Rauner equals four more years of petulant name-calling, gridlock and dysfunction in Springfield.
Specifically, does it mean another protracted stalemate in which the state operates without a budget and Rauner carries on about what a disaster Illinois is?
Though Rauner preened in his speech about the bipartisan budget compromise that ended the stalemate and provided “momentum we will build on in a second term,” the fact is that he vetoed that compromise because it contained a tax hike, and it took 15 Republican defectors to override him.
“Do you regret not signing that budget?” I asked him Friday.
“No, not all.”
“So why will we not see another standoff?”
“Members of both parties know that much of what I was pushing for is right,” he said. “They’re much more willing to do reform.” And because the budget is now “somewhere close to balanced … there’s no reason that we have to have a struggle on how much to cut or how much reform to go with how many cuts or how much deficit. We’re in a place where now we can make incremental improvements every year. The gap is not so big, the deficit is not so big that we can’t make incremental improvements. We should not have to have disruptive fights.”
Except, of course, that Rauner has vowed to try to roll back the very tax hikes that have put the state budget “somewhere close to balanced” and allowed him to purr reassuringly that we don’t need to worry that he’s going to dig in next time and again allow the state to go without a budget.
Yes, he appears to have softened. He demurred when I invited him to again describe House Speaker Michael Madigan as a “crook,” as he did during his last conversation with the editorial board, and said only that he believes Madigan’s dual role as a state lawmaker and property-tax appeals lawyer is “unethical.”
But aside from saying that Democratic lawmakers secretly agree with him and can be coaxed into supporting his initiatives over the opposition of their leaders, he still can’t explain why the next four years under him will be any different than the last four years.
Bonus points to Rauner, though, for showing up. His Democratic opponent, J.B. Pritzker, declined repeated invitations to join the conversation, where we would have had some difficult questions for him as well.
The interview with Gov. Rauner can be viewed at chicagotribune.com/raunervid.
The winner of this week’s reader poll to choose the funniest tweet among the 15 finalists I plucked out of my Twitter feed is “Criticizing Trump in a book is just unfair. It’s like criticizing the Amish on television,” by @PoliteMelanie. Want to be sure to vote next week? Go to chicagotribune.com/newsletters and sign up to receive a email reminder when the poll goes live.
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September 14, 2018 at 06:51PM