Last week a victorious Bruce Rauner, newly elected governor of Illinois, went heavy on repeating a pair of buzzwords: "competitive" and "compassionate."
"I am personally committed to making Illinois the most compassionate state in America, and the most competitive state in America," he said last Thursday, unveilng his bipartisan transition team. “I believe very strongly there is an important role for government to help those who are vulnerable, those who are in need, those who need assistance from our society, from our community. In order to do that we need to have a competitive, growing state."
The Republican venture capitalist, who aims to trim government fat, lower taxes, deregulate education and run the state like a business, appears to be taking a page out of George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" handbook. In 2002, Dubya declared: "It is compassionate to actively help our fellow citizens in need. It is conservative to insist on responsibility and results."
At the time, the Rove-ism—er, Bush-ism—was a way to sell the new GOP president to moderates in the wake of popular, resilient Democrat Bill Clinton, who left the White House with an impressive 68 percent job approval rating. (Bush, peacing out in '09, departed with a dismal 22 percent rating. After sending American troops to fight in two unpopular wars, and overseeing a disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina, No. 43 had a hard time hawking the compassionate part of his philosophy.)
While plagued by low public approval, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn managed to snag 46 percent of the vote to Rauner's 51 percent. The Winnetka one-percenter cast Quinn as a "failure" responsible for the state's fiscal woes; his emphasis on jobs and the economy helped edge out the incumbent in a traditionally blue state dominated by Chicago. Now he must reconcile his fiscally conservative, pro-business, pro-personal responsiblity views with those of an electorate who overwhelmingly supported 2014 ballot questions to impose a tax surcharge on millionaires and raise the minimum wage.
Rauner once proposed eliminating the minimum wage in order to make Illinois "competitive" with surrounding states whose $7.25-per-hour rates match the reduced federal level. (Nevermind that the $1 dollar difference is not enough to drive business out of state and otherwise spell economic doom.) Rauner has since shifted his position to supporting a hike (but only with corporate concessions), wants state lawmakers to wait until after his January swearing-in to take action.
If Rauner is to succeed in putting his stamp on a populist, progressive issue that nearly injured his campaign, then he must win approval from Democrats and swing voters for whom the word "conservative" is anathema and self-market as a team player who looks out for the little guy (while helping the rich get richer, as per his private equity past). Like other Republican leaders, from Chris Christie to Rand Paul, Rauner is rehashing compassionate conservatism to refresh a half-dead brand—and differentiate himself as an independent thinker, a maverick, a representative of a new kind of GOP. Like the aforementioned Christie and Paul, he could also be laying the groundwork for a future presidential run—but not in 2016.
In Illinois, he's dropping the "conservative" and replacing it with "competitive."
While Rauner's rebranding may trigger excitement amongst the voter base, it won't have much effect on the overarching budget problems and messy financial challenges facing the state. Reality may trump rhetoric and force Rauner to deliver.
Meanwhile: The governor-elect still needs to put forth an agenda, a detailed plan, that will clarify how he intends to "bring back Illinois" ... and balance these two C-words.