Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb took a risk with his seventh State of the State address.
He dared to be boring.
Holcomb’s half-hour speech read and sounded like a term paper. It was loaded—almost clogged, in fact—with numbers. At times, it seemed as if the governor were reciting a math story problem, not a televised address.
I am not saying that to belittle either Holcomb or his speech.
The cliché about politics always has been that one campaigns in poetry and governs in prose. The real and thorny problems that confront public servants, even governors, often don’t lend themselves to soundbite solutions, particularly in an age in which the challenges grow more complex by the minute. The sort of rhetoric that soars may make the pulse pound but often is difficult to translate into practical public policies.
Holcomb took the cliché one step further and spoke at times not even in prose, but in equations. He talked about how public investments in key areas of the state have fueled growth, expanded opportunities and enhanced the lives of Hoosiers. He showed, for example, how luring foreign investment into the state increased Indiana’s revenues without imposing additional tax burdens on Hoosier citizens.
Time and again, he showed how using Hoosier tax dollars to fund schools, build trails, and improve cultural and exercise opportunities brought benefits, economic and otherwise, to the state’s people and communities.
If the address often seemed dense and overly detailed, there may have been a method to the governor’s supposed madness.
Without directly saying so, he was making a case for government.
He, a governor from a Republican Party that often considers government evil or incompetent and taxes as theft, offered a hidden argument that government isn’t a necessary evil, but a positive good. It is the instrument through which self-governing people can shape their lives and preserve the well-being of their communities.
Far from being unjust confiscations, taxes are the fuel that makes that process of self-government run, the means by which free people rule themselves.
Holcomb doubtless was politically savvy to obscure his argument when speaking to a state legislature in which both chambers—the House of Representatives and the Senate—are ruled by Republican supermajorities and peopled with conservative ideologues who never let facts alter their conclusions. Holcomb’s biggest headaches in recent years have come not from Democrats but from the most extreme members of his own party.
That is why the governor tailored some of his arguments to conform to the prejudices of rightwing ideologues.
His proposal that textbooks be provided free to Hoosier students, for example, was presented not as a state-funded benefit to Hoosiers, but as the removal of an unfair tax on parents of schoolchildren. The ideologues hate the idea of government helping people—particularly poor people—but they hate the notion of taxes even more.
Regardless of how the argument is framed, the free-textbook idea is a good one, a practical solution that will make life easier for many Indiana families and alleviate feelings of shame and anxiety for many Hoosier parents who are struggling to get by.
And the benefit for the citizens of the state is that children who learn because they have full access to the books they need are likely to grow to become more productive members of society.
Such common-sense propositions dotted Holcomb’s half-hour speech, which was interrupted more than 20 times by applause. Much of that applause, though, was perfunctory, prompted by the governor taking a long pause while waiting for someone to clap.
When legislators did applaud enthusiastically, it often was the Democratic lawmakers in attendance who did so the most lustily.
That in itself may be significant.
Much of what ails this current age can be attributed to our determination to view everything through partisan or ideological filters. Holcomb contended that some ideas just make sense, regardless of where they come from.
What he said wasn’t poetry.
Sometimes, it wasn’t even prose.
Often, it was numbers.
But the numbers seemed to add up.