OP-ED | The Politics of Malaise
Nothing about the campaign for governor has been more emblematic than this: the popular and effusive Bill Clinton shows up to boost Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s sinking campaign, and ends up speaking to a less-than-capacity crowd in a badly-lit hotel ballroom. Far from firing up the base, this visit just made the governor, and the Democratic Party, look worn out.
It was in this dim and depressing setting that Gov. Malloy decided to trot out one of the pitches he hopes will be a winner on the campaign trail this fall: that Tom Foley, the monster, is a pessimist.
“This is a guy who prays for rain on a sunny day,” Malloy said of Foley, whose campaign has largely been about how lousy Connecticut is with Malloy at the helm. Malloy, of course, is well-known for his sunny disposition and optimism — Courant columnist and radio host Colin McEnroe dubbed him the “Grouch-in-Chief” for a reason. Then Malloy added, “Connecticut is a great state. We’re going to prove that on election day.”
But does anybody believe that this is a great state, right now? When a debate over whether we actually like it here and are planning on leaving soon can hit the pages of the state’s largest newspaper, prompting New York magazine to publish a piece called, “What’s the Matter With Connecticut?” — that may give us a clue.
We’re in a funk. To be fair, it’s been a rotten couple of decades for us — our cities have lost people, prestige, and just about everything else; our economy has taken hits again and again; we lost our hockey team to a state where water doesn’t even bother freezing very often; our governor went to jail, got out, and landed himself promptly back in trouble; and we’ve been slammed by hurricanes, snow, ice, and even tornadoes. Bad times all around.
No amount of suddenly-sunny talk from our governor will change these facts. We’re in a bad mood. We believe Connecticut’s stuck in the mud, and we’re all sinking down with it.
Politically, this is going to play out in a couple of ways. First, this is not a good time to be an incumbent — especially one who has never gotten by on political charm. By and large, incumbents in this state and the country in general have the advantage, unless their opponents can convince voters there is a crisis large enough to warrant a change. Tom Foley doesn’t even have to try very hard in this case — voters are already at that point.
This is why we’re seeing Malloy trying the Mr. Sunshine routine, which has two main thrusts: one, that we’re not in a crisis after all, and two, that Tom Foley is just a grumpy old sourpuss for believing that we are. The danger here is that Malloy is coming perilously close to dismissing how an awful lot of people in this state feel as mere pessimism.
The second way that this is going to play out is all about apathy. Voter turnout in 2012 was pretty decent: turnout this year is going to be an awful lot lower. We may even see turnout that’s lower than it was during the Republican wave of 2010. Low turnout usually favors Republicans, whose voters tend to be die-hards, but the GOP doesn’t seem particularly energized by their choices this year, either.
What this really means is an election that will be hard to predict. It could end up turning around on a few minor issues, or it could just sputter to the end, exhausted, and spit out a new governor.
That’s the final way this plays out politically: voters may slouch to the polls to boot Malloy out, but what sort of mandate will Tom Foley really have?
Our self-esteem as a state has been low for a long time, and it’s tempting to think that there’s nothing ahead but decay and stagnation. When we stop believing that it’s even worth changing things in this state we lose any hope of making a better future for ourselves, and we risk sinking deeper into the swamp of cynicism and infighting.
A Governor Foley may not be able to accomplish much when facing both a hostile legislature and a demoralized populace. After all, he’s not exactly inspirational, and unlike another governor to take over after a big crisis, M. Jodi Rell, he’s not particularly comforting or reassuring either. His honeymoon, if he’s not careful, could wind up being perilously short.
And if that happens, will he have anyone but himself to blame?
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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