Where are the details? Candidates for governor say a lot without saying anything

Luige del Puerto//October 3, 2014

Where are the details? Candidates for governor say a lot without saying anything

Luige del Puerto//October 3, 2014

ChalkBoardPoliticians possess a notorious trait: They can say a lot without saying anything, and the two men who are seeking Arizona’s governorship are no exception.

Republican Doug Ducey and Democrat Fred DuVal are adept at avoiding specifics, particularly when pressed on questions of governance. Instead, they have stuck to broadly-crafted answers when they are asked to highlight their contrasting visions for the state.

This tendency to be vague has been excoriated as affirming a lack of substance or a cynical attempt to obscure their positions as they pander to their political bases while courting independent voters.

Yet there’s a valid reason for the lack of specificity: Campaigns aren’t the vetting process for picking the candidate with the best administrative skills. If that were the case, a panel of experts, such as the committee that picked Michael Crow to lead Arizona State University, and not the electorate, would be conducting the vetting.

Chuck Coughlin, a longtime adviser to Gov. Jan Brewer, said campaigns are foremost about labeling and branding, two goals that require great skill and a lot of money.

“They’re choosing a brand,” Coughlin said. “Campaigns are about broad labels, and candidates will resist adopting specific policy solutions” unless they know or are assured that those positions are safe.

Republican consultant Chris Baker said that’s partly because voters, who are the candidates’ main audience, neither have the time nor the inclination to pay attention to the minutia of running a government.

Indeed, candidates paint with a broad brush, speak in generalities and aim to label their opponents as holding contrary views because catchy phrases and smart retorts are easier to digest than a thesis on state trust lands, for example. Both candidates mentioned state trust lands as a potential source for increasing K-12 public funding despite historical and constitutional restrictions on their use.

“It’s not a criticism of voters per se. It’s a reflection of the fact that the average voter frankly doesn’t pay enough attention over the course of a campaign, nor wants to pay the kind of attention necessary to get down in the weeds,” Baker said.

Political consultant Stan Barnes, a former legislator, echoed the sentiment and added that voters have a “short attention span and a low tolerance for absorbing detail.”

Hence, Ducey promises to eliminate income taxes without specifying how he would fill roughly half of state revenues that would evaporate as a result. DuVal wants to spend more on programs, including reviving all-day kindergarten, even as the state’s revenue collections remain tepid. And during their first debate, both candidates gave inadequate responses when asked how they would deal with the looming state budget deficit or pay for the court-ordered K-12 inflationary funding.

This is also why DuVal finds himself fending off the drumbeat that he’s a lobbyist — a charge insinuating that a career in lobbying makes one unfit to run a government. Meanwhile, Ducey’s critics have panned him for the supposed failings of Cold Stone Creamery, which is, in fact, a successful business.

High level of scrutiny
But while campaigns do not dwell on the specifics of governance, they help prepare candidates for the enormous task of running a state by subjecting them to a high level of scrutiny. They test their ability to persuade members of their party during the primary and a broader population during the general election.

This ability to build coalitions based on broadly shared goals is particularly important. The governor has to court, cajole or even coerce the Legislature’s cooperation in order to implement the Ninth Floor’s agenda.

More significantly, the governor switches into campaign mode when selling a controversial position to the public, much as Gov. Jan Brewer did throughout her term, when she decided to raise taxes and expand health care against the wishes of many in her party.

Against this backdrop, the campaign becomes a practice run for bigger, more impactful policy decisions later.

Coughlin said Brewer’s two terms are an outlier when assessing whether gubernatorial candidates have followed through on campaign rhetoric once elected, given that the state’s fiscal house was in disarray when she became governor.

But this is why specific promises during the campaign are quickly set aside once a winning gubernatorial candidate begins to confront the task of running a $9 billion enterprise. A governor has to navigate through political conflagrations, unwanted publicity and the vagaries of a capitalist economy.

“Governing the state is fluid. You’re not dealing with static situations,” Baker said.

Ammunition for an attack
There is a more cynical explanation for the candidates’ tendency to avoid specifics: Doing so will only provide their opponents with ammunition.

The more specific an answer is, the easier it is to pick apart, consultants note.

“On the financial issues of handling the challenges that confront the state, if you’re going to be specific, I would argue that you’re only handing your opponent something to beat you about the head and face with,” Coughlin told the Arizona Capitol Times, noting that budget issues are complicated, nuanced and have to be negotiated.

Indeed, specific policy proposals inevitably raise the ire of one or another constituency, a situation that is diametrically opposed to the goals of a gubernatorial campaign. In the last debate, Ducey said he would pour over the budget “line by line” to look for savings — a statement that is music to the ears of conservatives.

But he doesn’t even cite one program he is willing to cut because each government program has its own defenders, and raising the specter of reducing its size or eliminating it risks losing its defenders’ vote.

Ultimately, voters are more interested in knowing a candidate’s vision and approach to leadership than getting into the policy weeds of running the affairs of government, according to Barnes.

“Voters inherently know that actual governance is going to be messy,” Barnes said. “The best way to judge a candidate for high office is to know where the candidate wants to take the state, so that in the middle of the sausage-making we call self-government, at least a voter can rely on knowledge that the governor has a purposeful direction he or she is trying to move toward.”

Indeed, Barnes said those broad, dueling narratives are clear: “When Fred DuVal gets to talk about anything he wants, he talks about restoring Arizona’s public schools. When Doug Ducey gets to choose his topic, he talks about the economy and jobs. This is the most important thing for voters to know when deciding on a candidate for Arizona governor this year.”