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 being a bold conservative won’t earn him plaudits from the same media outlets now recommending boldness.
Consider Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal. Widely recognized as a rising Republican star, Jindal’s been credited with reforming state government, boosting the state’s business climate and a host of other policy innovations.
Just last week, Jindal abandoned his bold proposal to eliminate his state’s income tax and replace it with a higher sales tax and a broader sales tax base. With solid Republican majorities, he should have been able to get it through.
His own partisans said he failed to make the case. “Too ambitious,” said one. (Notably, under Jindal’s tax plan, Louisiana’s sales tax rate would still have been lower than Indiana’s).
Even where Republicans are firmly in control, they are acting scared. Some of this is fear of losing the next election. Some is fear of the news media whose liberal bias is documented. Some is not knowing how to lead.
Stephen M. King, professor of political science at Taylor University, is writing a book about political leadership with the working title “Leadership Adrift.” It will offer a recipe of sorts for morally transformative and effective management.
His thesis is that for leaders to succeed they must exhibit strong character, accountability to the community and “fidelity to authority.” The latter means they stick to their constitutional job descriptions to accomplish their goals. A morally transformative leader would not use the regulatory process to achieve legislative aims, for example.
King agrees with other analysts that Pence seems overly cautious. He suspects Pence is struggling with the transition from representing one geographic district in Congress to representing all of the people of Indiana. Complicating the picture is the existence of factions within the Republican Party. Despite their supermajority status, Republicans are “standing still,” King said.
The management guru, Peter F. Drucker, advises leaders, “Your first and foremost job as a leader is to take charge of your own energy and then help to orchestrate the energy of those around you.” In that advice, there’s good news for Pence. His term is still young, he’s got plenty of energy and — at least for now — there’s a Statehouse full of Republicans to orchestrate.