Joshua Claybourn: Gov. Pence faced comparison with Daniels
Friday, February 17, 2017 11:25 AM
EVANSVILLE – I remember the moment when Mike Pence’s challenge crystallized for me. In 2012, as he campaigned to succeed Mitch Daniels as governor, Pence traveled the state setting up listening sessions with small business owners, and his campaign team asked me to set one up in Evansville.
He opened the discussion with an admission that Daniels already addressed most of the low-hanging fruit to improve Indiana’s business environment, but he asked what he could do to further improve state government. As folks around the table offered comments, everyone had plenty of constructive (and harsh) criticism for the national government, but they each struggled to identify concerns with Indiana. In short, thanks to the preceding eight years of Mitch Daniels’ leadership, Indiana was working well – really well, in fact – and Pence would have to work hard to get out from beneath his shadow.
Pence’s place in history as governor, literally and figuratively, will forever be viewed next to Mitch Daniels. The Daniels tenure was defined by grand, measurable vision. He knew what he wanted and pushed and pulled the legislature to get there. Daniels embodied the role of the executive. Pence, by contrast, spent his entire political career as a legislator in Washington without much of a splash. During his 12 years in the House, he introduced 90 pieces of legislation, an average of about 15 pieces per session, and none became law.
Unyoked by the forceful drive of Daniels and viewing Pence as one of their equals, Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma and Senate President David Long exerted more independence. As a result, the Indiana legislature often treated Pence’s agenda as no more important than their own.
Pence seemed willing to submit to a more assertive state legislature. As he unveiled his 2014 agenda with few details, Pence told Howey Politics, “I want to give legislators the broadest possible range to develop how they think this might work best giving consideration to all of the interests involved. Articulate a vision that we think reflects the priorities of the people of Indiana. Articulate policies that we believe will advance their priorities. And suggest ways those policies can be formulated, but to work in a collaborative way with members of the General Assembly and the leadership of both chambers.”
It was an attitude Pence took with most of his agenda each year. One could conclude he approached his tenure with collaboration, modesty, and humility. Yet a less charitable assessment would view it as reactionary and timid.
Legislative leaders certainly felt they could push back at Pence. In 2013, he proposed a dramatic 10% income tax cut. But Bosma and Long, along with Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley and Ways and Means Chairman Tim Brown, quickly reshaped it to their own liking as a multi-year phased-in 5% reduction. Pence once again submitted it to them, telling WISH-TV, “I say without hesitation I think the final product was better than what I first proposed.”
Occasionally his unwillingness or inability to control the legislature brought unwanted controversy. Although Pence was certainly a social conservative who always asserted he was a “Christian, conservative, and Republican, in that order,” he actually wanted to focus more on jobs and schools.
Daniels kept the legislature focused on his agenda by ensuring that controversial, unwanted bills never made it out of committee or never got introduced in the first place. With Pence, however, socially conservative legislators felt far more liberty to push controversial legislation restricting abortions and, most famously, promoting religious freedom in the form of RFRA. Pence never sought out these controversies, nor did he necessarily encourage their passage. But he also did little to stop them from brewing or moving forward.
Pence wanted a Hoosier legacy of accomplishments with the economy, budget, and education, and on those fronts he accomplished plenty. He began the process of a balanced budget amendment to the state’s constitution, continued to build on the state’s record surplus, and saw all of the major economic metrics improve or remain steady.
On education, Pence supported sizable reforms in funding to pre-schools, voucher programs, and charter schools. In short, he sought and achieved more school choice, one of his primary goals. Nevertheless, to the extent his reelection as governor was in jeopardy, some of it was due to frequent clashes with Supt. Glenda Ritz and public school supporters over school oversight and standardized testing.
As Indiana’s governor, Mike Pence signed 687 bills into law. Pence no doubt left his mark on Indiana, but he could never quite escape the Daniels shadow. His tenure will likely be remembered more for the bookends on either side of it, a long shadow cast by his predecessor Mitch Daniels and a whirlwind presidential campaign plucking Pence up as vice president before he could run again.
In an odd twist of fate, Mike Pence now has an easier time making an impact on national policy than he did on his own Hoosier state. His political aspirations and focus began in Washington, D.C., and they will now in all likelihood keep him there.
Claybourn is a Republican attorney from Evansville.