Three speeches last week have kept political tongues wagging. Speaker Rebecca Lockhart kicked off the 2014 legislative session by pointedly criticizing Gov. Gary Herbert for “inaction.” Then Barack Obama, in his State of the Union speech, threatened to bypass Congress. Finally, Gov. Herbert delivered an energetic State of the State speech. Here is our two cents worth:
Was Speaker Lockhart’s speech the opening salvo of the 2016 Republican gubernatorial nomination race?
Pignanelli: “It is intended, that the three branches of government experience tension and competition. Friction is a sign of the system at work.” — Peter Shane
To characterize Lockhart’s speech as a campaign stunt is an insult to the speaker ... and the governor. Lockhart is a gutsy, intelligent (former nurse), articulate conservative who shocked the Utah political world by knocking off popular incumbent Speaker Dave Clark in 2010. Although known for a tough demeanor, the “Iron Lady” united the House GOP Caucus through her open style. This is Lockhart’s last legislative session, and many expected the final speech to be a genteel listing of accomplishments as she fades into the sunset. That is not her style.
Gov. Herbert is exceedingly popular with Utahns, especially as our state is recognized nationally for its exceptionalism in many areas. While some Republicans privately question his leadership style, no one disputes the Herbert cabinet is stuffed with competent professionals with solid management skills. Lockhart’s speech was an acknowledgment that Herbert is at the top of the political mountain, impervious to traditional legislative actions of persuasion. Lockhart and her caucus have aired concerns in public as a tool to pull the governor toward their perspective in state policies.
Webb: She made it abundantly clear she’s gunning for Herbert, attempting to differentiate herself from the good-natured governor.
Was it wise for a Republican speaker to criticize her Republican governor at the beginning of a legislative session?
Pignanelli: Lockhart’s critique of Herbert reflects the realities of Utah’s political dynamics. The GOP dominates most political venues. Therefore, a practical analysis of government performance is usually not proffered by Democrats, but through other Republicans. The Herbert administration has fostered numerous important initiatives in education, economic development, etc. The speaker openly challenged the governor — and the Legislature — to do better. This approach places short-term risk on both branches, as the media and political pundits will provide analysis as to who prevailed in the session. But Utahns will benefit from a greater incentive to accomplish goals.
Webb: One of Lockhart’s House Republican colleagues told me, “I wonder if she forgot that he (Herbert) has to sign our bills.” Her tone was unexpected and a little jarring, especially because Herbert is a very popular governor. One should not imply a political opponent is a weak leader without demonstrating strong leadership oneself. In her speech, Lockhart did not propose anything gutsy or sweeping for any of the big issues: clean air, education, health care or the coming transportation crisis. She worried about Utah “coasting,” but didn’t suggest bold initiatives. She called for an “education renaissance” and more investment in teachers, but listed all the “small ball” education solutions everyone talks about.
Lockhart pointedly opposed a gas tax increase when every honest politician on the Hill knows such an increase is crucial to avoid transferring enormous amounts of general fund money into transportation. Gas tax purchasing power has dropped dramatically since it was raised some 17 years ago by Gov. Mike Leavitt and a courageous Legislature. She didn’t propose a transportation solution.
On clean air, she again listed the litany of small solutions. On Medicaid expansion, she criticized Herbert, but didn’t offer an alternative plan.
Certainly, Lockhart is only one of 104 lawmakers and her style isn’t to dictate to that group. But a speaker can have a vision and propose big ideas. Mobilizing her fellow legislators is what leadership is all about.
Did Herbert recapture session momentum with his speech Wednesday night?
Pignanelli: The governor exuded the aura of an energetic statesman, articulating Utah’s achievements while seeking to be inclusive. He conveyed strength and confidence (gentle digs to the Speaker were noted). He drew battle lines with Lockhart over Medicaid expansion — which now promises to be an even more interesting tug-of-war.
Webb: It was one of Herbert’s better speeches. He was both relaxed and animated while still stumbling a bit with the teleprompter. Neither Herbert nor Lockhart proposed really exciting initiatives on the big issues. Neither proposed a big education investment or bold education reform like school choice. They didn’t say they would lead other state leaders to form a constitutional convention to restore balance in the federal system. They didn’t propose to double transit ridership in the next five years to combat air pollution.
I like politicians who have big ideas, while recognizing that most progress in public policy comes incrementally.
Did President Obama’s speech make it more or less likely that Congress and the president will successfully address the country’s major problems in 2014?
Pignanelli: Even GOP strident activists acknowledge that president Obama delivered a well-crafted optimistic presentation. While Republicans will grumble about his executive actions, he did set the stage for bipartisan solutions to immigration, trade and tax reform.
Webb: It’s Sunday, and likely no one remembers Obama’s very forgettable speech Tuesday evening. Obama made me thankful for the much-maligned House of Representatives, which has been able to stop cold most of Obama’s big tax increases and government expansion programs. I’m glad citizens, led by the tea party, rose up in 2010 and gave control of the House to conservative Republicans. We certainly need more compromise and less gridlock, but I’d rather have gridlock than Obama and a Democratic Congress forcing massive liberal programs onto the country.
Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D’Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: email@example.com.