OP-ED | The Governors’ Guide to Popularity
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has failed at being popular again. I feel sorry for him; after all, the guy’s been working his tail off trying to find sensible ways to deal with state employee unions, balancing the budget, and single-handedly re-connecting your power after Hurricane Irene, but all he has to show for it is the same old abysmal approval rating. He must be wondering at this point what it takes for people around here to like him. It used to be that extracting concessions from unions and being visibly in charge during a major storm translated into a bounce in the polls, but for Malloy this is just not the case.
I figured I’d help him out. Here’s a few constructive tips to help Malloy become a more popular governor, and the sort of guy Democrats will start inviting to brunches in Iowa.
Follow someone unpopular – Malloy’s biggest mistake so far has been succeeding Jodi Rell in office. Rell left with an approval rating that any politician who had spent six listless years in office would envy, which came in part because she was the breath of fresh air after John Rowland was chased from office. It doesn’t always work out, though: ask former New York Gov. David Paterson or President Barack Obama.
Perhaps Malloy can leave the state for a while and put, say, someone even less popular than he is in charge while he’s gone. Then when he returns, everyone will be glad to see him! The challenge? Finding someone less popular.
Be mean and overbearing – Americans seem to love politicians who push us around, insult their enemies, and generally act like spoiled, self-entitled brats. Malloy made some headway here when he described Ron Paul as an “idiot” on national TV, but he’s missed a lot of other opportunities. He’s persisted in trying to be friendly with state employee unions who clearly despise him, for example, when he could be out there calling them lazy, shiftless bloodsuckers. This country is in a mean mood these days, and we all appreciate it when our leaders help us take our aggression out on people we don’t like.
There may be some limits to being pompous and partisan, though: Republican star Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey’s approval rating isn’t much better than Malloy’s these days.
Make a better first impression – Gov. Andrew Cuomo is a popular guy in part because one of the first things he did as governor of New York was to close a huge budget gap without raising taxes. Malloy’s first impression as governor was a budget that called for “shared sacrifice,” which meant taxes, spending cuts, and union givebacks. Only the first has registered with voters.
New York and Connecticut are different states that faced different situations, and New York generally has higher taxes than Connecticut even now, but Malloy still should have known better. Most voters are perfectly happy to cut the pay of state workers, close schools, let roads deteriorate, abandon social services entirely, and leave the cities to rot, but they’ll storm the barricades if they’re forced to pay an extra buck or two to fill up the SUV. After all, people are hurting!
Malloy can perform brilliantly from here on out, but he’ll never convince huge blocks of voters that he’s anything more than some jerk who took more of their money.
Get lucky – Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell is popular in part because Virginia’s unemployment rate is a cool 6 percent; well below the national average and Connecticut’s 9.1 percent. Virginia does well because their economy is heavily dependent on the always-expanding federal government (check out the pattern in this map for a nice illustration of this). It must be nice to be a small-government conservative who benefits from big government, and to be governor of a state that’s doing well during a national economic crisis. No wonder some people think he should run for president; maybe that kind of good fortune is contagious.
Try being folksy – It seems to work for Rick Perry, whose appeal is simultaneously baffling and instantly understandable. Voters like politicians who remind them of their own most cherished conceptions of themselves. In our dreams, all Americans are down-home, hardworking, and simple, and we all have a ranch or at least a truck. Malloy comes across as smart, prickly, energetic, and somewhat cranky. Maybe his problem is that he reminds us of who we actually are, instead of who we’d like to be.
Popularity in Connecticut is a strange thing. Former Gov. M. Jodi Rell got a much better rating for doing an awful lot less, after all. Even Sen. Joe Lieberman’s approval rating is better than Malloy’s these days. What do we really want from our leaders, anyway? I don’t think we have any idea. To his credit, Gov. Malloy seems to be able to do his job despite our confusion.
Susan Bigelow is the former owner of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.