Still more than a month away, the hotly contested Democratic primary is finally moving into high gear. Over the next several weeks, Pennsylvania voters will be treated (if that’s the word) to a veritable barrage of political ads, press releases, debates and other assorted arcana of political campaigns heading for the wire.
So far, it’s been a set-piece campaign. Although it has turned a bit negative, the four surviving candidates have mostly agreed on the big issues. They all advocate ambitious agendas in education and economic development as well as protection of the environment and job creation. As challengers, they’ve mostly avoided dealing with the precarious fiscal situation faced by the state. None favor, for example, increases to the currently structured sales tax or the income tax or in fact any broad-based revenue measures, except for a severance tax on the natural gas industry.
Abundantly clear is that whichever Democrat wins the nomination, he or she is going to wage a vigorous and energetic campaign in the fall. The Democrats intend to win in 2014, and they intend to govern aggressively, if they do win.
Let’s say this happens. Indeed, it is no secret that it could happen. Gov. Tom Corbett, long considered the nation’s most endangered incumbent governor, could still pull it out. Few are betting that he will.
For the moment, then, let’s hypothetically assume that one of the hard-charging Democrats wins in November. Then what happens?
Maybe nothing! Make that a lot of nothing.
We don’t have to look any farther then down the road to an imploding Washington, D.C., to understand why “nothing” may be the bitter postscript to the Pennsylvania 2014 gubernatorial race.
In Washington, an isolated, increasingly frustrated Democrat, Barack Obama, is struggling desperately to pursue an agenda blocked almost completely by the opposition party’s veto in the Congress. By any measure, Washington is trapped in a stunning gridlock.
Is this Pennsylvania’s near future? Sadly, it could be.
Currently, state Republicans control both houses of the state Legislature. While some believe Democrats might capture the state Senate in November, Democratic control remains a long shot. More likely, Republicans will continue their Senate dominance, perhaps becoming even more conservative than now. A conservative-oriented, Republican-controlled Senate represents a major roadblock to the agenda of any would-be Democratic governor.
This bad news might actually turn out to be the good news for any new Democratic governor. Much worse is the situation in the state House. There, already about 30 tea party types make the state House a junior version of the federal House. Moreover, no knowledgeable analyst expects the state House to change hands. The current 111-to-92 edge Republicans currently hold will remain largely intact, partially the result of two decades of favorable gerrymandering and the collaboration of both parties in pursuit of legislative protection.
But numbers alone tell only half the story. As in Washington, far more problematic is the rampant polarization and hyper-partisanship that exists. For example, not a single Democratic House vote was obtained on Corbett’s 2013-14 budget, nor did a single Democratic lawmaker vote for the liquor privatization bill passed in the House. The Pennsylvania General Assembly is an ideological battlefield, and any new Democratic governor’s ambitious agenda would be an early casualty.
So, if a Democrat is elected in 2014, a not-so-quiet policy paralysis is likely to descend over Harrisburg, much as has already happened in Washington.
Are we then making a not-so-subtle argument that, flawed as he is, re-electing Tom Corbett may be preferable to creating a mini Washington, D.C., on the Susquehanna? Is the devil we know better than the devil we don’t? Is Corbett the best of the worst and should we keep him?
No, we don’t make that argument one way or the other. That is clearly for the voters to decide. What we do believe, however, is the vital importance of understanding what decades of paralyzing polarization perpetuated by both parties have done to our politics — and threatens to do to our government.
Pennsylvania’s 2014 gubernatorial election will not end these battles. They will go on. They might even get worse.
But this neither makes the election irrelevant or unimportant. Things will not change in Pennsylvania or nationally until the electorate decides to change them. The 2014 gubernatorial election could be the catalyst that sparks that change — the moment where voters collectively say “enough!”
2014 could be Pennsylvania’s “tipping point.”
As Winston Churchill said of another fight long ago, we might come to remember 2014 as “… not the end … not even the beginning of the end. But … perhaps the end of the beginning.”
That’s a good start.