Pence needs to be bolder, move faster
Mike Pence worked in a shark tank for 12 years on Capitol Hill, where the incautious were eaten alive by partisan opponents, cable TV talk shows and special interest groups. As the House Republican spokesman for several of those years, Pence learned to measure his words even more, knowing that he represented not just himself but also his entire caucus during frequent TV and radio appearances.
But those lessons are not serving Indiana’s new governor well now. Caution isn’t the right tact for the chief executive of a state that needs bold leadership and the impatience, born of necessity, to drive major change with a sense of urgency.
To be successful in his new role, Pence must break out of the cautionary stance that he’s taken for the first three months of his term and begin to assert himself more boldly, passionately and when needed forcefully.
During a meeting with The Star Editorial Board on Thursday, the governor ticked off several of his team’s legislative accomplishments and near accomplishments thus far in a General Assembly session that ends later this month. And while some of the ideas are indeed promising — such as a renewed emphasis on vocational training in high schools and creation of research centers linked to Indiana’s strong set of universities — the overall package isn’t ambitious enough for a state with the economic and education challenges we face.
Indiana, after all, is 40th in the education level of its workforce. The average Hoosier worker earns 86 cents for every dollar paid to typical American. Our health statistics — smoking, obesity, heart disease, diabetes — are among the worst in the nation. Our air and water quality continually ranks near the bottom. In short, we can’t afford as a state to go slow — or be cautious — without running serious risk of falling even further behind, to the point where recovery might not be possible for generations.
Is that putting a lot on Pence’s shoulders? Yes, but the job of leading 6.6 million people is undeniably tough in the best of times, and Indiana is not by any means currently enjoying the best of times.
While at The Star, Pence joked that he didn’t face a learning curve in his first months on the job — it was more like a steep vertical climb. That would no doubt be true for any newcomer to the office, but it’s especially so for someone without recent executive experience. In the U.S. House, Pence was one of 435 representatives. No one set the agenda on his own. No one in Congress, not even the Speaker, was at the point in deciding the federal government’s direction. As governor, Pence does have to set and drive the agenda. He needs to adjust to that new reality more quickly.
So what adjustments could the new governor make? The good news is that he’s set the right priorities -- education and economic development. But he needs to attack those huge challenges in a much more comprehensive manner.
Pence, for example, says he understands the importance of early childhood education. But his proposal to give an additional tax incentive for private donors who help at-risk children secure slots in high-quality preschools is far too modest to make enough of a difference in a state where thousands of kids are on waiting lists for preschool. In his meeting at The Star, he said he didn’t support a proposed pilot program that would invest $15 million in high-quality preschools, preferring instead to turn to private donors. But will the private sector really underwrite in any big way an ongoing need when state government refuses to spend any money on the effort?
In terms of economic development, one of the more daunting long-term challenges in Indiana is the ongoing decline of many small towns. Pence could be the governor who launches a sustained, coordinated effort to change that. But it won’t happen without his administration developing a plan, pulling together the right leaders and setting aside resources to begin transforming small town and rural life in our state.
Boldness. Vision. A sustained determination to revive a state that has enormous potential but hasn’t fully met expectations for decades. Can Mike Pence, whose humility and willingness to listen are admirable, be the leader who provides those qualities and in doing so guides Indiana to a much higher level? Yes, he could be.
But caution will not get the job done.
— The Indianapolis Star. April 12, 2013.