Gov. Terry Branstad cooked up a decidedly upbeat Condition of the State speech today. It had plenty of homegrown Iowa ingredients -- wrestling, ethanol, wind turbines and fertilizer. It had students building robots! A Marion Swamp Fox Festival shout-out! It wasn’t too long!
What more could we ask for? (Hold that thought.)
But at its heart, it was a mushy love letter to bipartisan cooperation, an ode to the creative friction of a politically split Statehouse. We’ve all come together to plant the seeds of the “Iowa Dream,” the Republican governor said. A bouquet for everyone.
Goodbye scolding grandfather of 2011. Hello Gov. Kumbaya.
If you were a legislative Republican sitting in the House Chamber, a Senate Republican especially, waiting patiently for the part about all the great GOP ideas those dastardly Senate Dems have scuttled, you’re still waiting. Sure, there’s plenty of time for campaigning, and this speech is supposed to be the stuff of statesmanship, but not even a morsel of red meat?
A small bone, guv? One thinly veiled punch? A hint of "liberal obstruction?"
Sorry. This is Des Moines, not D.C.
Make no mistake, Branstad is a partisan through and through. He’s more than willing to toss cooperation out of the nearest window if it suits one or more of the constituencies he cares about. If some bipartisan effort happens to benefit a constituency he doesn’t care about, out comes the veto pen. And Branstad’s brand of bipartisanship is usually compelled by political realities. He is a politician, after all.
And a better one than most when it comes to understanding political realities. In this case, a governor preparing to run for a sixth term this year clearly understands what voters want now. And that’s some concrete evidence that government can get past its entrenched differences and actually function. Republicans want it, Democrats want it, and, most importantly, independents want it. He knows how unpopular Congress and the president have become through dysfunction.
So what’s the condition of the state in Iowa? “Iowa is working,” the governor said. Like a charm. Like a Swiss watch. Just like he promised in 2010, the trains are running on time. Although don’t get him started on passenger rail.
And the 2014 agenda Branstad outlined today – an ambitious jobs and education program for veterans, expanded broadband Internet access, a tuition freeze aimed at slicing student debt, a renewed anti- bullying effort, expanded apprenticeships and new tax incentives for repurposing school buildings in small towns – is the sort of stuff designed to bring more bipartisan accord. Ironically, it may be Republicans worried about new spending, new regulations, etc., who are most wary.
“I think Senate Democrats can enthusiastically embrace all of these goals,” said Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, on Iowa Public Television moments after the speech.
I thought Branstad was particularly strong and poignant as he called for a new effort to help schools fight bullying:
Oddly, it was one of the few proposals floated by the governor that failed to draw applause from lawmakers.
But, unlike dreamy working Iowa, not everything in Branstad's speech was working.
For example, Branstad couldn’t resist once again floating the fuzzy math that his administration has created 130,000 jobs in Iowa. If you also count jobs lost, net job creation is actually around 54,000.
And it turns out we could have asked for more.
The governor has done good work on bullying, but he didn’t mention the rising number of children in Iowa living in poverty, also a nightmare they can’t escape.
Counties struggling mightily to cover the cost of critically important mental health services were left out of the speech, not to mention big holes in the state’s mental health safety net.
The governor also steered around any mention of Iowa’s mounting need for more highway and bridge repair funding.
He said now is the time “to be bold.” But on these pressing issues, a governor with a huge campaign war chest, high job approval and no formidable challenger yet was surprisingly timid. When has an Iowa governor been in a better position to damn the politics and solve some stubborn problems? Why stop at property taxes?
Here’s a summary of the initiatives Branstad did outline: