Since his inauguration, Gov. Bruce Rauner has consciously aped Washington, D.C.’s, notoriously noxious battle to “win” the daily media spin cycle. Rauner has a set base of talking points based on tried-and-true poll-tested topics, and he rarely – if ever – deviates.
While Chicago suffered through its most violent summer in decades, the governor routinely focused his public comments on term limits – a not-so-subtle dig at the horribly unpopular House Speaker Michael Madigan’s decades-long tenure, but an issue without hope of passage and irrelevant to some very serious and immediate crises, such as the one pummeling our state’s largest city.
More bad economic or fiscal news? Rauner reliably trots out a vague promise of “reforms” – swearing that the Democratic leaders have promised to take them up just as soon as the campaign is over, even though his reforms would mean eviscerating the Democrats’ chief political allies (labor unions and trial lawyers), and Senate President John Cullerton has denied any such offer was ever made.
The nuclear dumpster fire that is the presidential campaign? The governor says he is simply too focused on reforming Illinois to care, or even to share about whom he might be voting for.
And now, one of Rauner’s closest allies – the far-right Illinois Policy Institute – is producing a campaign-style “documentary” about Madigan, just as similar dark-money groups in D.C. have been nauseatingly churning out for years.
It’s no surprise that this movie fits in neatly with Rauner’s entire campaign strategy. Since early June, the Republicans have aired millions of dollars’ worth of TV and radio ads and sent out countless mailers all designed to tie Democratic legislators and candidates to Madigan. Almost every dime of their funding for those attacks has come from Rauner – and yet, Rauner has repeatedly insisted that he’s not involved, other than to write a few checks.
It’s all one big thing. All Madigan, all the time.
And although Rauner has brought D.C.’s never-ending campaign to Illinois’ executive branch, he also has a similarly tiny list of accomplishments to show for it. His administration has so far been little more than a frantic exercise in treading water until his chief nemesis finally can be vanquished, or at least brought to heel.
But this isn’t a completely new development. We’re already familiar with some of this in Illinois.
Madigan has been doing something similar for years, albeit on a much smaller, less obviously dramatic, less technologically advanced and less expensive scale.
His House chamber’s agenda is almost entirely organized around making sure that Madigan gets his more vulnerable incumbents re-elected. And those vulnerable members are advised to take whatever positions are necessary to win re-election (including fanning the already-intense flames of hate against Madigan’s hometown of Chicago). There was a time when Madigan had a specific “theme” for each legislative week, only voting on bills that matched the weekly issue. At one point, he even tried his hand at (ahem) publishing a Statehouse newsletter.
Madigan has refused to discuss any significant deal on the governor’s Turnaround Agenda, sticking closely to his talking points that Rauner is “operating in the extreme,” even though Madigan often has supported legislation in the past that unions didn’t love.
Madigan won’t budge this time because Rauner’s overt hostility has sent all those unions running to the speaker with wide-open checkbooks and huge lists of precinct workers. There’s simply no political advantage to compromise, unless Rauner’s gamble pays off and he successfully makes Madigan “the” big issue of the year and Madigan loses a bunch of seats.
Otherwise, we may not see a deal during the “lame duck” session after the election, and the impasse likely will drag on. If there is no progress, Rauner undoubtedly will make his entire 2018 re-election campaign about Madigan. But next time, it won’t be a few tens of millions of dollars as with this year. It’ll be real money. Maybe $100 million.
And, unless Hillary Clinton manages to lose the presidential race, the governor’s re-election campaign will occur during yet another Democratic midterm election, which will make it that much easier to get his anti-Madigan message through to voters. (One of Rauner’s many valid and understandable reasons for refusing to give any overt public aid or comfort to Donald Trump is that a Trump win would devastate Rauner’s re-election chances.)
This battered, much-maligned state shouldn’t have to endure this agony, but here we are, like it or not.
• Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.