Imitation, the saying goes, is the most sincere form of flattery. So either Governor Tom Wolf is in the running for president of the Barack Obama fan club, or the Wolf Administration lacks the capacity for original thought. In ways big and small Tom Wolf has copied the Obama governing strategy. The problem for the governor is that the Obama approach relies heavily on levers of power available to the president, but not to governors.
President Obama and Governor Wolf each ascended to the chief executive’s office with skimpy political resumes. Obama had been a U.S. Senator for only two years when he ran for president. Wolf’s only public service was as secretary of revenue in the Rendell Administration. Both interpreted their elections as mandates that simply didn’t exist. Obama’s election resulted from voter backlash over George W. Bush’s unpopular wars. Wolf won simply because he wasn’t Tom Corbett.
Their campaign organizations were similar. Barack Obama bested Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic Presidential Nomination in 2008. Clinton loyalists populated the Democratic National Committee and were salted throughout the party structure. Obama built his own campaign apparatus, Obama for America, which allowed him to essentially bypass the official party. When Jim Burn refused to step down as state Democratic Party chairman, candidate Tom Wolf formed Fresh Start PA, again running his campaign outside of the formal party machinery.
Seeking to build upon their phantom mandates, both Obama and Wolf took office espousing grand ideas. Having tacked hard to the Left to win a competitive primary, Wolf named two erstwhile opponents, Katie McGinty and John Hanger as chief of staff and policy director. McGinty and Hanger are two of the most left-wing policy wonks in the state and immediately proposed a massive expansion of spending, along with a complex reworking of the state’s tax structure that – if enacted – would result in the largest tax hike in state history. The scope of the proposed tax increase is so large it alone is bigger than the tax hikes proposed by governors of the other 49 states combined.
President Obama also came into office with big ideas. Most of those grand schemes failed, with the notable exception of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, which became law but triggered massive Democratic congressional defeats the following year. In fact, Obama lost so many legislative battles he settled on a new strategy – bypassing congress and governing by executive order.
Governor Wolf’s copying of the Obama playbook fails to take into account that Democrats controlled both houses of congress during his first year in office. Wolf has no such luxury. In fact, he began his term with Republicans solidly in control of the state senate and holding a historically high number of seats in the house. In another major departure from the Washington model, the GOP majorities in Harrisburg are cohesive with effective leadership, unlike the hapless Republicans in congress.
Like Obama, Tom Wolf has opted to run a perpetual campaign rather than trying to govern. Obama for America became Organizing for America as the president attempted to politically bludgeon Republicans into bending to his will. Likewise Governor Wolf has set up his own PAC and called in help from the Democratic Governors Association attacking Republicans for blocking his tax and spend agenda.
The problem with this strategy is it leads to gridlock. Washington has been beset by a series of high profile budget battles. Wolf vetoed the GOP-passed state budget and talks are at a stalemate. Worse for Wolf, the president’s ace in the hole is his bully pulpit. Obama can count on a compliant national news media to beat the drums against Republicans. At the state level few media organizations have reporters at the capitol and state issues gain little public attention. That makes it considerably more difficult for Wolf to put voter pressure on a legislature that simply won’t give in to his demands for more spending and higher taxes.
Finally, President Obama has consistently out-messaged national Republicans framing issues to his advantage. Tom Wolf has failed to do so. More spending and higher taxes play well in the Philadelphia region, but nowhere else. It is a message that quite simply won’t sell statewide.
By not grasping the structural differences between the Obama approach and governing Penn’s Woods Tom Wolf has wed a policy agenda that cannot be achieved. Thus the budget stand-off in Harrisburg will continue until the governor realizes he is no Barack Obama and accepts the reality that Harrisburg is a very different place than Washington, D.C.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is [email protected]lincolninstitute.org.)
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