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April 24, 2013

NEAL: Pence’s leadership challenge

Only three months into his term, Gov. Mike Pence has taken a beating for failing to lead. Opinion writers, Democrats, even fellow Republicans, have offered all manner of conflicting counsel.

His own legislative leaders have balked at his proposed 10 percent income tax cut, which should have been a shoo-in with Republicans in charge of both chambers. They say it’s not prudent to cut taxes when the economy’s still fragile.

When Pence has waffled or deferred to lawmakers on other issues — mass transit, arming school officers, the Common Core — he’s been described as weak.

“Pence has been virtually silent, almost rudderless, in his first three months,” the Journal and Courier of Lafayette said. The Indianapolis Star called on Pence to be “bolder, faster” and “break out of the cautionary stance that he’s taken for the first three months of his term.”

That’s good advice, to be sure, but only if it’s backed up by clear communication, thick skin and confident execution.

Pence’s predecessor, Mitch Daniels, did not have this problem. Daniels was the first Republican governor to hold the office since 1989 so he entered the Statehouse with a mandate for change. He was more of a pragmatist than an ideologue so he looked less threatening. And he consciously avoided the traditional social agenda — abortion, gay rights, etc. — that generates so much emotional reaction.

Pence can’t be like Daniels. He has prided himself on his free market, small-government ideology and social conservatism. The question then is how to take those core principles, communicate them clearly and lead.

His dilemma reflects that of the GOP nationally, which is grappling with a marketing problem. When Republicans take firm stands for reduced government spending and lower taxes, they are painted as uncompromising. If they tackle the social agenda, they are labeled out of step. After six terms in Congress, Pence knows that being a bold conservative won’t earn him plaudits from the same media outlets now recommending boldness.

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