Gov. Bruce Rauner doesn't want to talk about social issues. In fact, he's loath to do so, no doubt because his positions don't play well with hardline conservatives who turn out for a GOP primary.
But Rauner's cultural centrism happens to be the GOP's best hope if it's going to retain the Governor's Office in November. And, that, perhaps above all else, is why Illinois Republicans should hand Illinois' freshman governor a victory in the March 20 primary.
Make no mistake, Rauner's first term wasn't pretty. At the outset, the millionaire investor entered office in a state with exploding pension liabilities and property taxes as local governments struggled to pay the retirement costs. From day one, Rauner's agenda was hamstrung by a state Democratic Party that's been weaponized by House Speaker Michael Madigan.
Rauner had to make his case and win a few seats in the General Assembly. Instead, he flailed about, burning through staff like charcoal and shifting messages seemingly on a whim.
His first term was, by and large, a flop.
Rauner wants to blame Madigan for the two-year budget stalemate that undermined state universities and corrupted the social safety net. In fact, Rauner hopes to convict Madigan in the court of public opinion for all of Illinois' failings.
So much for the buck stops here, eh?
Rauner's draft executive budgets were annually billions out of whack and relied on goofy budgetary gimmicks. He targeted public employee unions almost above all else, scuttling any hope for meaningful negotiations. He stuck to divisive bullet points from his so-called "Turn Around" agenda — some of which we support — long after they were clearly going nowhere.
Madigan's role in maintaining that which erodes Illinois is legendary. Rauner, however, was no passive observer. He was the governor. And, as such, he oversaw a truly dysfunctional state.
Rauner might have correctly diagnosed Illinois' cancer. Throughout his first term, though, a cure was nowhere to be seen. Let's hope that, after more than three years, Rauner's learned a thing or two about playing the game.
Much of Rauner's ineffectiveness was due to stubborn intransigence. For most of his term, he just couldn't make a deal with the dominant Democrats. Now, Rauner hopes to take credit for instances where he got steamrolled. The most obvious case is the overhaul of educational funding. By no objective was that a win for Rauner's administration, which labeled it a "bailout" for Chicago public schools. The funding reform happened in spite of Rauner, not because of him.
Let's get real here, governor.
All that said, Rauner remains the GOP's only hope at maintaining a grip on Illinois' levers of government. And that's because his challenger in the primary, state Rep. Jeanne Ives, touts politics best fit for Mississippi. She would struggle in an Illinois General Election, though, where the GOP's chances in November hinge on swaying centrist independents and soft Democrats.
Ives is running because Rauner signed legislation that codified a woman's right to an abortion, she said. She blasted him for supporting public safety legislation that rightly keeps Illinois cops out of immigration raids. Ives is hugely impressive in that she's accomplished what even the White House has failed to do — provide a thoughtful, if terrifying, justification for xenophobic Trumpian populism.
It's a guaranteed loser in sold blue Illinois.
With so few victories, Rauner's running on his ability to block more tax hikes and gerrymandered district legislative maps, he told us. In short, Rauner's biggest selling point is not that he can move things forward, it's that he can stop them from sliding back. It's not the most inspirational slogan, but, the simple admission counts as progress. Rauner looks to have learned the benefits of pragmatism in politics.
But the very things which Ives' attacks just so happen to be Rauner's biggest strengths in a General Election. He's no right-wing culture warrior. He's not crusading to rip rights away from women or inflame racial tensions. He's refused to scapegoat and dehumanize immigrants. And he's done so while, at the very least, identifying the institutional rot that's sinking Illinois.
A failure to nominate Rauner on March 20 would be tantamount to forfeiting the Governor's Office to Madigan's Democrats in November.