Tom Foolery | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Tom Foolery

Corbett re-election bid may be hard to watch

Back in 2012, Gov. Tom Corbett achieved national notoriety while discussing a proposed law requiring women to get an ultrasound before having an abortion. If a woman didn't want to see the image, he said, "I'm not making anybody watch. ... You just have to close your eyes."

I suspect a lot of us will be remembering that advice as his re-election campaign hits the airwaves.

For one thing, Corbett — who backed Mitt Romney's presidential bid just two years ago — is apparently intent on denouncing his Democratic rival, Tom Wolf, for making too much money.

"Millionaire Tom Wolf spent a fortune on TV ads," Corbett's latest TV spot begins in a sneery voice. This in a month during which Corbett's own campaign spent $1.66 million on advertising, according to nonprofit journalism outfit PublicSource. (Wolf himself, by contrast, had yet to spend a dime in July.)

And surprise, surprise — Corbett's ads are partly financed with money donated by millionaires. Former PNC Bank head honcho James Rohr, to pick a name almost at random from Corbett's donor list, kicked in $25,000 for Corbett's campaign this spring. A Philadelphia Phillies co-owner has spent $300,000.

Bullshit populism is stock in trade for today's GOP, of course: It's what allows them to denounce Democrats as "elitist" for opposing tax cuts for the wealthy. But attacking rich people may carry a special risk for Corbett: He's already ticked off everyone else.

Although lefties hate him, according to a recent Franklin & Marshall College poll, barely half of Republicans say they've decided to vote for him.

Among other things, Corbett alienated conservative hardliners by pushing for a desperately needed transportation-spending bill, which included some barely-feel-them tax hikes. And while he's fighting a self-defeating battle to ensure Obamacare helps as few Pennsylvanians as possible (yay!), he hasn't gone out of his way to destroy unions (boo!). Even when he says awful stuff about social issues — gay marriage is like siblings wanting to get hitched! — he seems more clueless than hateful.

The truth is that Corbett is far from the worst Republicans have to offer; that's why he's not more popular with Republicans. His curse is that he's a reasonable, if unimaginative, pro-business lackey, saddled with a Tea Party base that is far from reasonable — and nothing if not imaginative.

So what's a flailing gov to do? For Corbett, apparently, the answer is to challenge the state legislature, which is run by his fellow Republicans. Corbett wants Harrisburg to focus on the pension crisis, damn it, but the legislature has so far refused to act. So he has unleashed his line-item veto to block legislative spending in this year's budget.

Corbett became governor partly because, as the state's attorney general, he prosecuted several successful corruption cases against state legislators. You can see why picking a fight with them might not seem like a dumb idea. Plus, pensions are a real problem: There's some $50 billion in retiree-related debt hanging over the state.

But Corbett admits that his own proposal — which focuses on shifting to a more 401(k)-style plan for future public workers — will do little to resolve the issue. At most, it may be a starting point for a discussion over possibly doing something that might eventually begin to curtail future increases.

And think of all the other legislative outrages during Corbett's tenure. Voter ID. Spurious regulations to hamper women's health clinics. A "stand your ground" gun law. Corbett wasn't necessarily gung-ho about that stuff, but he didn't fight it, either. Nor has he pulled out all the stops to, say, get a statewide LGBT anti-discrimination bill passed. But now! Now that he has nothing to lose! Now that he has this last, shining chance to ensure his legacy! The issue he chooses is ... pensions. Instead of pursuing a cause like lowering college costs — Pennsylvania has some of the priciest state-supported universities in America — he chases an issue few voters care about, with a fix that won't work.

Incumbents generally have an easy time in Pennsylvania, and Democrats have a gift for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. So Corbett could somehow turn this election around. But at this point, does anyone really want that? Even Corbett himself?

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