WAGNER: Dems need clear ideas to fill Pence leadership void

February 6, 2016

It’s a new year, and we’re fully into the 2016 campaign cycle. It looks like it will be exciting for political junkies at every level of government from the Statehouse to the White House.

I have some strategic advice for my fellow Hoosier Democrats who’ve signed up to be on the ballot: It’s time for us to stop talking about the lack of Republican leadership on big issues and instead begin providing Democratic leadership on big issues.

Gov. Mike Pence kicked off the year with his annual State of the State speech. It was not what you would call a barn burner. Honestly, it was 30 minutes of my life I’ll never get back.

The speech netted all the responses you might imagine from folks on my side of the aisle, and that’s the role partisans play. I’ve occupied that chair. I’ve written those statements. It’s formulaic and easy to think you’re getting through to real people.

The truth is, partisans frame but don’t actually carry a party’s message. Candidates do. Right now, Democratic candidates are echoing the party mantra that the governor must go.

It’s not enough.

I recently received this anti-Pence proclamation in a fundraising appeal from a Democratic candidate: “Hoosiers deserve a leader, not just a big-talking ideologue.”

That’s true, but here’s the trouble: We aren’t leading.

We aren’t filling the void Pence has created with anything more than blah-blah campaign rhetoric.

Don’t get me wrong: Being anti-Pence might get us across the finish line, but then we will have to govern. Governing is hard.

Pence has shown us just how hard it can be when you have few ideas and don’t understand that leadership means leading everyone—when you lick your index finger, stick it in the air and allow the direction of the wind to determine your next policy proposal or media response.

The result is what I like to call governing from behind.

Hoosiers are notorious for not expecting much from their government. Former Gov. Mitch Daniels challenged that expectation. Lots of people bristled, but there was never a question that he had a clear vision for our state.

Shortly before Daniels left office, I closed a column for IBJ with this sentence: “As we watch the transition of one administration to the next, it will be fascinating to compare and contrast Daniels, who never lost his way, with Pence, who’s yet to articulate his.”

We know now that there’s been plenty to contrast. But if we stand for nothing, we’ll fall for anything.

So here are a few ideas: Let’s come up with an infrastructure funding plan that addresses the long-term funding gap. That means talking about new sources of revenue. Maybe it’s tolling. Maybe it’s something big like legalizing and taxing marijuana.

Let’s drop our stale K-12 education talking points and start focusing on empowering parents to choose the school that works best for their kids.

Let’s champion a minimum wage hike that’s both meaningful and attainable—up to $9 or $10 an hour—so it forces Republicans to make the argument that we can’t afford it when almost all of our neighboring states have boosted their minimum wages above ours.

Gov. Pence has damaged the GOP brand here, creating an ideal environment for our candidates to start standing up in front of microphones to share our vision for the future of Indiana. Not what we wouldn’t do. What we would.

Leave the partisan stuff to the partisans. It’s time to show Hoosiers that we can, will and should govern them well.•


Wagner is a lifelong Indianapolis resident and founding principal of Mass Ave Public Relations, a local public relations and publicity firm. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.



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