Ward Room
Covering Chicago's nine political influencers

Opinion: Quinn Swung, Missed on State of the State Address

Governor's speech Wednesday very likely failed to meet policy or political goals

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Governor Pat Quinn says the state is making a comeback. That was the theme of his state of the state speech, but his four Republican challengers disagree with him. Political reporter Mary Ann Ahern has the story from the state Capitol.

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Give Governor Pat Quinn this: As campaign themes go, “getting the job done” and “Illinois is making a comeback” aren’t the worst ideas ever.

Still for a speech that was widely anticipated to be a campaign speech to kick off his re-election effort, Quinn’s State of the State address Wednesday failed to function very well from either a political or a policy perspective.

While it was, as many expected, a laundry list of past accomplishments and future agenda items, it was all too often simply that—a list that failed to either rouse voters to action or offer citizens viable solutions to the state’s many pressing problems.

That’s not to say Illinois should expect the kind of soaring rhetoric out of Quinn it’s used to from another famous native son—Barack Obama. But it is to say that Quinn’s workman-like speech probably didn't do himself or Illinois voters very many favors.

Here are three thoughts on how and where Quinn’s speech missed the mark.

Little connection with voters. One of the reasons why Barack Obama has been as successful a politician as he has is in part because of his ability to step out of the daily political cycle and at least appear to level with people. Two obvious examples of this are the Jeremiah Wright speech in the first campaign and the more recent attempt to address failures of the Healthcare.gov web site.

For Quinn, no such leveling with voters was made. Any speech from the chief executive of a state with as many chronic, structural problems as Illinois has that offers little more than platitudes and a lack of specifics is a political speech in the worst way.

A riskier yet potentially more effective strategy would have been for the governor to look voters in the eye and say he understood their concerns, knows there’s still serious problems to fix, has a realistic plan to fix them and ask for their partnership and patience, rather than simply pronounce things were getting better and hope for the best.

In many ways, Republicans are right. As a campaign speech goes, very little of what Quinn said Wednesday is likely to inoculate him from Republican attacks in the months to come, whoever the GOP gubernatorial candidate is.

The reality is, Quinn’s vulnerable on fundamental issues Republicans have been harping on for years: an unacceptably high unemployment rate, dismal job creation prospects, heavy burdens on small businesses and people, money and companies fleeing the state.

Despite a somewhat impressive legislative agenda over the last term that included same-sex marriage, Medicare expansion and medical marijuana—all expected to help shore up his liberal base—voters across the political spectrum are lukewarm to downright hostile to Quinn these days, including Democrats. Don't believe me? Find a union household and ask the voters inside how they feel about Quinn’s reelection.

At least two of the current GOP primary candidates for governor—Kirk Dillard and Bruce Rauner—are already road-testing variations of the phrase “death spiral” to describe Quinn’s handling of the state’s economy. Expect more of that talk on the campaign trail in months to come. Little Quinn said on Wednesday is likely to shield him from such attacks.

Eyes Wide Shut. Pension reform constitutionality. Income tax hike sunset. The need for pension reform in Chicago. How to fund his many policy initiatives. The state’s backlog of unpaid bills. You name it, when it came to difficult decision about how to right the state’s troubled fiscal ship, Quinn’s speech simply acted like the problems weren’t there.

Granted, some or all of those issues can be addressed in the governor’s upcoming budget speech, slated for later this year. But even an expected ally as Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel felt compelled to release a statement essentially reminding Quinn of one of the issues he avoided—the municipal pension issue.

Whether they’re inclined to support a politician or not, voters know when a candidate is refusing to level with them, especially when it comes to how something is going to be paid for or when a tough problem is being avoided. From one perspective, Quinn speech was one long exercise in avoiding specifics on how the state’s bills are going to be paid.

It’s often said Pat Quinn is a formidable campaigner, and there’s a very good reason why he is where he is today.

Still, if you're in Quinn’s corner and were hoping Wednesday’s speech was the start of an easy glide path to reelection, you may just have to wait a little bit more before you can breathe easier.

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