The governor's six-month review (and recommendations for improvement)
Public opinion polls tell us that voters are a disgruntled group these days – especially when it comes to state-level politicians. That figures. Times are tough and many a governor has had to be the bearer of bad news about the need to cut services and raise revenues in order to balance their state's budget. It's a lot easier to be popular when state coffers are full – even if you had little or nothing to do with it.
Here in North Carolina, Governor Perdue has faced one of the toughest "to do" lists of any chief executive in the country. Between the time of her election last November and inauguration in January, the state's economy (and state tax revenues) plunged into a freefall. These problems (almost all of which were beyond her control) have only worsened since she's been in office.
Now overlay the economic and fiscal crisis with the continuing ethics saga in which her predecessor has become entangled (not to mention the absurd tragicomedy enveloping her neighbor to the south) and it's not terribly surprising that the Governor's popularity numbers have taken a tumble of late. It's the kind of atmosphere in which voters can grow surly and adopt a "throw the rascals out" attitude toward anyone in a position of power – especially if opportunistic ideologues in the political opposition are in full, negative attack mode at every possible turn and doing little, if anything, to help with the task of governing.
So what should she do? How can the Governor respond to her recent political troubles and advance the state's interests? Is it time for a bold new direction, staying the course or, maybe, a modest mid-course correction?
Here's why the third option – something toward which she already may be moving – is her best bet and the best solution for what ails state government.
The real Bev Perdue
Bev Perdue was not elected chief executive of North Carolina because of her skills as a public speaker or debater or TV personality. On each of these counts, she is a politician of average ability. Nor was she elected as an agent of dramatic change.
She was elected to her high office because of her formidable experience and skill as a small "g" "governor" – that is, a veteran elected official who was steeped in the process of governing. Perdue couldn't out-debate or give a better speech that Republican nominee Pat McCrory or even primary opponent Richard Moore. And, as a sitting Lt. Governor with more than two decades' experience in Raleigh, she certainly couldn't out-promise anyone when it came to taking the state in bold new directions.
Where she beat them hands down – both in the eyes of voters and in reality – was in her knowledge of state government and experience in making it work. This was especially true in the case of the all-important state budget, which she knew intimately from her many years as Senate Appropriations Committee chair.
In short, few people were terribly moved or inspired by Perdue. What they were was assured. Here was a strong and experienced woman who knew state government like the back of her hand and who would keep the ship of state sailing a steady course. Indeed, her re-election in 2012 probably depends on sustaining and polishing this image.
Responding to the crisis at hand
Now, however, the ship of state has encountered stormy seas. And after a strong start in which she was a whirlwind of "in-everyone's-face" activity, the Governor seemed to lose her way – unsure of which direction to tack and of which kind of leadership style to adopt.
For quite a while, it seemed that she was following the example of the reclusive Mike Easley by avoiding involvement in the details of crafting legislation. More recently, she's been trying on more of a Jim Hunt-like role as a bully pulpit cheerleader. Neither has suited her or served the state particularly well.
What North Carolina needs right now (and what Governor Perdue is perfectly well-suited to deliver) is sober, steady, disciplined, detail-oriented governance.
To the extent that North Carolina's current fiscal and economic problems are in any way the result of state policy choices rather than the global economy, it is not because the state has had too much gubernatorial attention to detail or for lack of spirit in the general public. Ultimately, it is the result of a failure to make hard, unpopular-in-the-short-run decisions of the kind that one might get from one's accountant; painful, even courageous choices in which one talks straight to voters about taxes and services and to good ol' boy politicians about favored pork projects.
North Carolina's revenue system is obsolete. Unfortunately, this isn't something that can one can muster massive public support to reform (at least in the short run) or fix with a broad brush. It's simply too complex and too vulnerable to right-wing demagoguery. The best hope is to bring in the smartest possible people, immerse oneself with them in the problem, and just do it.
The proof will be in the pudding. Over time, as public revenues and services stabilize, prosperity rebounds and voters see that state taxes are fairer, more predictable and comparatively low, they will come along.
The same is true for combating pork, special tax breaks and other giveaways to the well-connected. Though a relatively small part of government spending overall, such expenditures are, nonetheless, unnecessary political baggage – especially in tough times like the present. It's already hard enough to get voters to accept the idea of short-term sacrifice for the common good. To do so while handing gift-wrapped anecdotes and talking points to right-wing naysayers is doubly tough.
Saying "no" to such wasteful expenditures will undoubtedly ruffle some feathers, but like tax reform, it is an excellent way to improve overall efficiency and confidence in government.
Setting the record straight
None of this is to imply that the first six months of the Perdue administration have been a failure. To the contrary, the Governor has shown herself to be a serious and energetic public servant with an eye toward the middle class and the vulnerable and a real commitment to progress. When North Carolinians ponder some of the buffoonish politicians dominating the news cycle these days, they have every reason to thank their lucky stars for their current chief executive.
Still, as with most people who are new on their job, there is ample room for improvement in the Governor's performance. Perdue doesn't need to shove off in a completely new direction (what would she do, anyway, adopt the absurd and reactionary suggestions of the conservative ideologues?), but she does need a slight, mid-course adjustment.
Right now, if there's any weakness in the Governor's performance it's in her reluctance to be what she seemed to be and promised to be – a serious, confident, tough-minded, hands on manager, who would grab hold of the reins of power, surround herself with smart people, and immerse herself in governance.
In rough times like the present, it's perhaps understandable that she would stumble a bit or try too hard to be something she is not. Haven't most of us made that error?
Let's hope, though, that her recent plain talk about the budget is a signal that such experiments are coming to an end. What North Carolina needs Governor Perdue to do more than anything else right now is to just be herself – the person they voted for last November.