INDIANAPOLIS — These days, all Indiana Gov. Mike Pence needs to complete his act is a beard, a pair of shiny black boots and a big red suit.
In the past few weeks, the governor made like Santa Claus. He offered up new road construction plans and projects. He delivered pronouncements about new jobs coming to the state. And he even promised state employees raises in the coming year.
That’s quite a turnabout for a state leader who loved to tout his record of fiscal restraint, who pushed the people working for him not to spend anything anywhere and who brandished the state’s surplus as if it were a treasured trophy.
There are several reasons Pence shifted from being Scrooge to St. Nick.
The first and most obvious is that the jolly old elf’s public approval ratings are much better than the governor’s. The most recent reliable polls had fewer than half of the state’s citizens approving of Pence’s performance, not an encouraging sign for a governor about to enter into what promises to be a difficult re-election campaign.
The first time Pence ran for the state’s highest office he garnered less than half the votes and turned what should have been a rout into a close race. That was before the debacles that were his proposed state-run news agency, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act disaster and the most recent controversy over his decision to try to ban Syrian refugees from resettling in Indiana put some chinks in the governor’s armor.
He’s running again in the general election against the opponent — Democrat and former Indiana House Speaker John Gregg — who almost beat him last time, so trying to spread a little joy before the race begins in earnest is just a sound campaign strategy.
The second reason Pence has spent so much time — and money — stuffing stockings is that he wants to remind everyone that it’s good to be the governor. There still are whispers that he might face a primary challenge. The state’s business community, in particular, remains less than enthralled with a Republican governor who seemed to elevate conservative social issues (RFRA, anyone?) over commercial interests.
Pence wants to show any other Republican who might be thinking of challenging him the power that comes with controlling the purse strings.
The third and most important reason, though, that the governor is placing presents under trees all over Indiana is that some of the basic rules of sound governance — and therefore politics — have changed.
No one knows exactly how the generation of millennials who are emerging as a dominant voting bloc will break down in partisan terms. At this time, they seem somewhat less enamored of wearing party labels than preceding generations.
But a few things are clear.
They seem less ideological and, in some ways, more realistic than their elders. They care a great deal about quality-of-life issues. And they understand that the things they value — good roads, strong schools, a sound health-care system, viable public transportation — cost money. They’re open to creative ways of financing and delivering those things, which can create opportunities for both parties to win their votes and loyalties.
But it also presents a challenge to Indiana politicians from both parties, particularly the one who has the responsibility to lead the state.
For a long time, the operating political philosophy in Indiana has been like “Field of Dreams” in reverse: If we refuse to build it, they — new businesses, fresh opportunities, talented professionals — will come.
All we Hoosiers had to do, the thinking ran, was keep taxes low and business regulations lax and prosperity would follow.
Well, average Hoosier household income trails that of three of the four states surrounding us with the fourth one gaining ground. Nearly one-fourth of the state’s children live in poverty, and the bottom tier of Indiana’s middle-class is collapsing.
Sensible voters, particularly sensible millennial voters, understand these things, and they want to see investment in the future.
That’s the reason the hearty “ho, ho, ho” Hoosiers might heard this holiday season could have been coming from a concerned governor and not the guy driving a sleigh pulled by reindeer.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of The StatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.