Gov. Eric Holcomb did something sly with this fifth State of the State address Tuesday night.
He made a case for government and government action.
Holcomb argued from the start of his prosaic speech that the state was better off because Indiana’s government had functioned and because he, as the state’s leader, had acted. He began by talking about the challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic and then ticked off one problem area after another.
Even infant mortality.
Close observers of Indiana politics had wondered, going into the address, if Holcomb was going to take on his critics on the right wing of his own party who have attacked him for seizing too much power during the pandemic.
Some expected—and maybe even hoped—that the governor would throw down with the all-government-is-bad crowd. They wanted to see an open confrontation.
But that’s not Eric Holcomb’s style.
He is not an in-your-face leader. His natural inclination is to try to smooth points of friction. He is by instinct a man who wants to solve problems, not pick fights.
And, when he does have to fight, he does it with a rapier rather than a broadsword. He is not a man to swing wildly.
He also is savvy enough to realize that the State of the State is too big an obligation and an opportunity for a governor to waste on petty squabbles.
Particularly in this year, when more than 9,000 Hoosiers have died from COVID-19 and the death toll climbs a little more every day.
Because of the dark cloud the coronavirus has cast over Indiana and the rest of the world, Holcomb had to deliver his speech in a much more low-key fashion. Instead of addressing the state from the front of the Indiana House of Representatives, surrounded by every Hoosier lawmaker and state officeholder, along with an assortment of other dignitaries, the governor spoke from a studio.
The setting did not lend itself to rhetorical pyrotechnics.
That was just as well.
The smaller, more intimate setting played to Holcomb’s strengths. He never has been and never will be an orator of the first rank.
But he can be an effective, even powerful communicator. He is at his best when he just talks as if he were sitting across the table from his listeners, leading a conversation rather than delivering a stemwinder.
He used the format to his advantage Tuesday night.
He seemed to talk directly to Hoosiers, speaking with rather than at them, using his natural easygoing manner to convey that he not only understood them but was on their side. He came across as a commonsense conservative, not a raver, not an ideologue.
More like a neighbor who wants to lend a helping hand.
For that reason, it may have been his most effective State of the State.
Along the way, he offered a subtle and skillful rebuttal to his critics on the right who have accused him of something not much short of tyranny.
He argued, indirectly, that ideological rigidity and grand speeches are luxuries the state cannot afford while death stalks the heartland. Point by point, he made the case that inaction on the part of government would have been disastrous for Indiana.
His argument isn’t likely to persuade his critics.
Ideologues are ideologues, after all, because they don’t find it easy to understand or appreciate any point of view but their own.
But it likely was effective with most Hoosiers, who care more about seeing their loved ones make it through this crisis alive than they do about imposing ideological purity tests.
Reasonable people can and will quibble about whether some of Holcomb’s solutions to problems are the best or are even effective.
But few thinking people can argue with his overarching point that problems need solutions.
Particularly when people are dying.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.