In politics, first and last impressions are impactful. Through that prism we view the four-year term of Gov. Mike Pence.
The final impressions of Gov. Pence will enter the playbook for future governors. Following the 2016 General Assembly session, Pence essentially checked out as a full-time governor. There were no media avails following sine die. A heroin epidemic raged across the state with hundreds of overdoses and Pence was silent. More than 1,000 East Chicago Hoosiers were uprooted from their homes due to a lead contamination crisis, and the Pence administration mustered $100,000, but no visit or empathy. The I-69 Section 5 road project stalled between Bloomington and Martinsville, and Pence was silent.
His governorship stands out as the only one to attain office with less than 50 percent of the vote in more than half a century. Pence became one of the most polarizing governors in modern times. His favorables in the WTHR/Howey Politics Indiana poll were upside down. In the last head-to-head with Democrat John Gregg in April 2016, Pence had a 4 percent lead, but his fav/unfavs stood at 44/41 percent. Those kind of numbers for incumbents usually define a looming defeat. Little wonder that he pursued the vice presidential nomination with great zeal.
The Pence legacy will be bookended by two key cornerstones: The economy thrived during his tenure, with the state reaching record employment while the jobless rate declined by more than 4 percent. But Donald Trump exploited an economic angst that seemed to collide with Pence’s metrics.
His own re-election prospects were compromised by social issues he didn’t seek, but couldn’t resist signing. Unlike strong governors of the past, he failed to stop some of the most divisive issues before reaching his threshold.
On the economy, Pence can claim legitimate success. In four years, the Indiana Economic Development Corp. counted $15.49 billion worth of investments. In July 2015, Indiana claimed its employment high-water mark with 2.61 million Hoosiers in the workforce. Between 2012 and 2014, according to the IEDC, more than 125 foreign companies announced plans to grow or locate in Indiana, pledging to invest $4.6 billion in Indiana and create 13,300 new jobs.
The state wage average increased from $17.05 an hour in 2005 to $20.10 in 2013, and $21.55 in 2016. His Regional Cities Initiative pumped $120 million into local projects while encouraging local cooperation.
On the health care front, Pence’s greatest policy achievement came in the winter of 2015 when he convinced the Obama administration and the Centers for Medicaid/Medicare Services to grant his version of Medicaid expansion. Since CMS approved the Pence waiver in 2015, enrollment has gone from 193,573 in to a projected 457,739 in fiscal year 2020. The irony here is that Pence was a vociferous critic of Obamacare, but it was under this program that he was able to achieve such coverage.
Throughout his political career, Pence has been a tireless advocate for right-to-life issues. After signing a half dozen or so anti-abortion bills, Pence can take credit for helping to lower the state’s abortion rate. During the Pence era, abortions declined from 8,179 in 2013, to 8,118 in 2014 and 7,957 in 2015.
On education issues, Pence sparred with Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, attempted to form a parallel agency to the Department of Education, then scrapped it a year later after critics called it “convoluted.” He rescinded Common Core and ISTEP, but critics point out the state adopted essentially “Common Core Lite” and Pence left office without forging an ISTEP replacement. He rejected $80 million in federal prekindergarten funds, which angered legislators in both parties, saying he didn’t like the “strings attached.”
Social issues undermined him politically. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act would never have seen the light of day in the administration of his predecessor, Gov. Daniels. It widened fissures between social and business Republicans. His attempt to ban Syrian refugees from settling in the state came despite no authority to do so, with federal Judge Richard Posner calling out Pence in a scathing opinion for presenting a “nightmare scenario” with no factual basis.
Curt Smith, who heads the Indiana Family Institute, observed, “He showed one can champion such issues — life, traditional marriage, religious liberty among others — and achieve political success.” As for RFRA and the subsequent “fix” after the ensuing firestorm, Smith said, “I believe Pence did what he honestly and sincerely thought was best for Indiana. He did so at personal and political cost, I hasten to add.”
Evansville Republican Joshua Claybourn observes that Pence faced comparison with the widely perceived success of Gov. Daniels, writing, “Pence seemed willing to submit to a more assertive state legislature. One could conclude he approached his tenure with collaboration, modesty and humility. Yet a less charitable assessment would view it as reactionary and timid.”
And former Republican congressman Mark Souder said, “As an executive — whether you agree with him or not — he took years of advocating more purist conservative ideas and his legislative history of general conservative principle advocacy and then applied his ideas to divisive issues including education and health care. His adaptation of health care within a flawed Obamacare system is likely to become a national model.”
Pence’s policy formulated through the political prism, and it served his career well. He is vice president.
BRIAN HOWEY is publisher of the Howey Political Report, a weekly briefing on Indiana politics.
Contact him at 317-506-0883 or at howeypolitics.com.