When it comes to playing keep-away and dodging the political tough stuff, Gov. Chet Culver has serious skills.
I was reminded of that last week when Culver used a well-placed veto threat to shelve a legislative push to raise the gas tax. He makes it look easy.
Sure, the state needs the money, it’s a responsible long-term strategy and a gas tax increase, at some point, is all but inevitable. Even Republicans say so. But it might prove to be politically unpopular, and with Culver’s re-election campaign looming, it was time for an artful dodge.
This is nothing new. As an experienced Culver watcher, I think his best dodges can be placed in three categories.
1. Delay the Tough Stuff — Iowa’s property tax system remains an archaic mess at this hour. Culver appointed commission in 2007 to review the system and then all but rigged its report to call for a small, half-measure he heralded as “reform.”
What’s happened since then? More study.
When flooded out folks in Eastern Iowa pleaded for a special legislative session on recovery efforts last fall, Culver at first seemed to embrace the idea. He then backed off, sidestepped the issue and said a session was unnecessary. He blames the feds.
But again, a big election was looming.
Lots of people warned Culver and other leaders that they should pull back on spending last year with economic woes looming. But why inflict pain now? Let’s wait until after November.
2. Tell Liberals What They Want to Hear — As a canddiate for governor in 2006 Culver told environmentalists he favors local control of hog confinements and told Latino voters that he’d fight to repeal Iowa’s English-as-the-official-language law.
“It sends the wrong message,” Culver said of the official English law in August 2006. “That would be something I’d fight for as governor, to repeal the English-only law.”
But he’s never felt the need to spend a single dime of political capital to do either one. Slick.
3. Flash a Conservative Side — Culver is a death penalty supporter who swears he doesn’t want to sign a death penalty bill. He’s a gay marriage and civil unions opponent who doesn’t really want to discuss a constitutional ban. Inaction on both suits me fine, but what are we to think of a politician who tries to play both sides on important, emotional issues?
Now, I know every politician plays a little dodgeball.
Gov. Tom Vilsack dodged issues, to be sure, but he also took plenty of lumps for playing it risky. Republicans dragged him into court more than once and he had to call seven special sessions to get things done. It was so messy and contentious…and substantive.
No, you probably have to go back to Terry Branstad to find a political matador with similar instincts and cunning.
Branstad won four terms, and I expect Culver to be the favorite in 2010, unless all this dodging catches up with him. Slowly but surely, the now-lengthy list of potential Republican challengers will shrink. I’m betting State Auditor Dave Vaudt, Ag Scretary Dave Northey and U.S. Rep. Steve King will read the tea leaves and keep their safe gigs.
They know Iowans tend to keep their governors around. So Culver’s chances are probably good.
Still, I just like to see a governor takes some risks, stick out his chin and take a punch once in a while. I want to see a swing for the fences, even if it ends in an embarrassing strike out.
Yeah, I know, he vetoed the collective bargaining rewrite last year and made unions angry. But really, what choice did he have after they rushed an unpopular bill to his desk and thumbed their nose at his plea to slow down the train? I said he’s a dodger, not a cream puff.
I’m also not suggesting that he hasn’t accomplished anything. He has. It’s just that with his party controlling the whole works for the first time in decades, I expected more attack, less dodge.