Two Speeches, and Zero Substance

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Maybe they swapped speeches? Two governors — one Republican, one Democrat, both running for reelection — spoke to their legislatures this week, and except for some of the names and places, each of them could have given the other's speech and no one would have noticed. New York's George Pataki and California's Gray Davis gave their annual State of State addresses and laid out some handy tips for their fellow governors in this election year.

The parallels went well beyond the fact neither man is an inspirational speaker. (Davis has long joked he's about as exciting as his first name and Pataki spent most of the past four months letting Rudy Giuliani do the talking.) To wit: both governors wrapped themselves in the patriotism of post 9/11 America. Both pledged to get tough on terror. ("No state is doing more to protect its people from terrorism than New York." "No state has done more than California to protect its citizens.") And neither one had any suggestions on how to fix their states' budget crises. After all, who wants to talk about the tough choices the state will have to make — especially while the voters are listening?

With California facing a $12 billion budget shortfall — that's roughly the gross domestic product of Yemen — Davis and the state legislature face some big decisions. But the governor had little to say about the budget except that there would be some cutbacks and he would not raise taxes. Plus, more money will be going to education and public safety. Davis made several proposals on those two issues, but nothing too big. This, after all, is not the year to make big promises.

Rather than discuss issues of cold hard cash, Davis seemed more intent on providing a long list of his accomplishments over the past three years. The governor and his advisors are reportedly miffed that last year's energy crisis apparently drove the memory of two years of successes from the minds of California voters. It's true, Davis' mixed record in the fight to keep the lights on has obscured how popular he was before last year, but that's the way politics works. (Just ask George Bush's dad about the uselessness of his stratospheric approval rating following the Gulf War.)

Unfortunately for Davis, he wasted time focusing on past accomplishments instead of spelling out what he plans to do now that times aren't so good. Understandably, he doesn't want to make too many promises when there's no money, but that's just when leadership is needed. If he can get the state through the rough times, he won't have anything to worry about in November. Right now he's got three Republicans opponents who smell blood.

Back on the right coast, Pataki doesn't face as tough a reelection fight. His graceful handling of the 9/11 attacks gave his poll numbers a big lift. But he launched his reelection campaign in his speech too. He also ducked any talk of helping New York City's dismal budget. After several minutes of recalling the great courage the city displayed four months ago, he said that during the coming budget crisis he won't resort to accounting gimmicks, and he won't delay tax cuts. Apparently he also won't explain what he will do.

With the tight budget preventing any big moves, Pataki made a few small proposals — setting aside land for parks, banning discrimination against gays and lesbians, and improving women's access to breast and cervical cancer treatment. Generally, though, he used his pulpit to attack former Governor Mario Cuomo and the way he managed the state's finances. Seems like an odd use of the time with Mario currently sitting in a Manhattan law office, posing little threat to Pataki or to the Empire State's fiscal health. But his son Andrew is one of two Democrats planning to challenge Pataki this November, so the governor probably figures there's no better time to start discrediting the family name.

Don't be surprised if most governors sound a lot like Pataki and Davis in coming months. The states' budget crises will dominate politics this year, and since cutting popular programs and raising taxes are not attractive campaign platforms, governors will try to sidestep fiscal issues, instead making a few modest proposals and focusing loudly on homeland defense. It's an understandable impulse: times are harder for incumbents when times are hard. Flag waving, however, always plays well.