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Column: Pence pitches conservatism, Reagan style

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INDIANAPOLIS — Near the end of his first State of the State Address, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence was supposed to deliver a tribute to the patron saint of modern conservatives, Ronald Reagan.

But, perhaps because his speech Tuesday night was running a bit long, Pence dropped the paragraphs that referred to Reagan’s speech before the Indiana General Assembly more than 30 years ago.

Then again, Pence might have decided that those paragraphs weren’t necessary because his entire speech paid homage to the late president.

If the governor’s speech had a theme, it was that Reagan’s brand of smiling conservatism could be updated to replace the angry face that many Republicans tend to show these days. Pence paid tribute to teachers, to farmers, to veterans, to students, to entrepreneurs, to legislators and to ordinary citizens. He said at the beginning of his speech that he was honored to be the governor “of all of the people of the state of Indiana,” and he stopped just short of listing every one of them.

Pence’s address had all the familiar Reagan-like touches — the stretched-out “wellllls” and clipped “nows” at the beginning of sentences, the pauses for emphasis to show deep feeling and the tributes to ordinary people who have done great things and just happen to be attending the speech.

Like Reagan, Pence hit his marks. He began speaking at 7:03 p.m. and stopped a little more than 90 seconds before the statewide broadcast was supposed to end — just in time for the cameras to grab shots of him smiling and shaking hands with Indiana legislators before the TV stations carrying the address went back to regular programming. Along the way, applause interrupted him more than 25 times, including three brief standing ovations for the ordinary heroes he identified in the gallery.

And, like Reagan, the folksy touches had a focus. Political speeches are performances with a purpose. Pence had a program to sell Jan. 15 to a group of lawmakers who are not inclined to accept direction from the state’s new governor.

At the heart of that program is a campaign pledge that Pence made to cut Hoosiers’ personal income taxes by 10 percent. Leading up to the speech, the enthusiasm with which Indiana legislators have greeted Pence’s proposal has been underwhelming.

Just before the speech, I talked with a legislative leader who said, off-the-record, that he was dubious about the governor’s tax-cut plan. If the goal of the personal income tax cut was to stimulate job growth, the lawmaker said there were better ways featuring better tax cuts to do that.

During the speech, Pence pushed the tax cut hard. He made the case for the cut as a point of principle.

“You know, Hoosiers work hard. They labor in a fragile economy. They save and invest in their families and businesses and family farms,” the governor said, ad-libbing from his written text with more head shrugs and other Reagan-like touches.

Then he paused for emphasis and leaned into the clinching sentence.

“Why wouldn’t we want to let them keep more of what they earn?”

When Reagan made use of such touches, he did so with the aim of taking the discussion to the public in order to get citizens to put pressure on Congress.

It will be interesting to see if Pence is able to do that, because the initial response from lawmakers wasn’t particularly encouraging.

I ran into Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, moments after Pence stopped talking. I asked Bosma what he thought of Pence’s speech.

“It was great,” Bosma said with a smile.

Then I asked the money question: Had the governor sold him on the personal income tax cut?

The House speaker smiled again and shook his head.

“Not today,” Bosma said. “But we’ve got a long time to talk about it.”

That conversation, doubtless, will be fascinating as it unfolds during this session of the Indiana General Assembly, particularly because a famous ghost of the GOP will be hovering over it.

Ronald Reagan once famously asked Republicans to “win one more for the Gipper,” a reference to Reagan’s most famous movie role as doomed Notre Dame football hero George Gipp.

Jan. 15, Mike Pence turned that request around and asked the late Gipper to win one more for Indiana’s new governor.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 FM Indianapolis and executive editor of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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