Opinion and Forefront

FERGUSON: Big issues playing out right here in Indiana

February 18, 2012

Margaret FergusonAs the race for governor begins to take shape and the Super Bowl festivities wind down, I find myself contemplating where Indiana fits in the national political drama and what comes next for our politics here at home.

Indiana is at center stage, not just in the world of sports but also in the realm of politics.

Gov. Daniels delivered the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union address. The governor was an interesting choice. This role is often taken on by rising stars of the party. Bobby Jindal (Louisiana’s governor) comes to mind. The out-party uses this as a platform to offer up its alternative to the ruling party’s paradigm, or at least to critique the in-party’s interpretation of the state of the nation.

I should note here that it is easy to mess up this job. (Jindal again comes to mind. My students said he “seemed like Mister Rogers. But not in a good way.”) It’s not easy to do it really well. And it isn’t entirely clear what the payoff will be if one manages to carry it off.

But, when the president cannot say “the state of our union is strong” with a straight face, this certainly leaves a wide-open gap for the opposition to drive through. This was the situation facing President Obama. And this was where Daniels stepped in.

The president said the “state of our nation is getting stronger,” an arguably true statement though not one engendering a great deal of comfort given the continued high (albeit decreasing) level of unemployment. The governor, to no surprise, begged to differ.

Why did the Republican National Committee choose a term-limited, Midwestern, not particularly young nor up-and-coming governor to serve as its standard bearer?

My first thought was that, given the highly contentious presidential primary process, the party wanted to highlight a Republican leader known more for fiscal conservatism and “declaring a truce in the culture wars” than for divisive politics. The governor’s assertion that President Obama is “pro poverty” pokes a rather large hole in that theory. The fact that the address followed hot on the heels of the governor’s public embrace of so-called “right-to-work” legislation detracted further from that explanation.

As I have noted in this space recently, whatever one’s beliefs about “right-to-work” as good public policy, it does not appear to be good politics right now. Look to neighboring states for evidence of that. Wisconsin’s Gov. Walker faces a recall due in large part to this issue. While recall advocates needed to gather 500,000 signatures, they got twice as many for good measure.

More likely, Daniels was the choice because Indiana—long a guaranteed win for the Republican presidential nominee—gave its 11 electoral votes to Obama in the last election. Perhaps the national Republicans highlighted Indiana as a symbol of the promise of a return to partisan normalcy in 2012.

The big issues of the day are playing out here and in surrounding Midwestern states. Daniels has been a national opinion leader in his party. The Republican Party is doing extraordinarily well in our state and local politics. More important, Republican dominance is likely to remain for the foreseeable future, given the district maps drawn by the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

So maybe leaders of the Republican National Committee see Indiana as a model, and hope party successes here will point the way for other states.

I’m tempted to say, given all of this, “As Indiana goes, so goes the nation.” But Daniels will not be the Republican nominee for president (though it is still conceivable he will be on the ticket).

Where the national party goes will depend on who ultimately wins the nomination. Where Indiana politics goes from here will likewise depend on who follows Daniels into the governorship.•

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Ferguson is an associate professor of political science in the School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI with expertise in state politics. Views expressed here are the writer’s. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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