The New York Times‘s Mark Pazniokas has penned a lengthy piece about Gov. Jodi Rell, in which people from all across the ideological spectrum wrack their brains to try and figure out where her immense popularity, strong even in the face of economic disaster, comes from.
Some respondents think it’s because she hasn’t made hard decisions.
“Politicians of all stripes who maintain high approval ratings sometimes do so at the expense of doing anything hard, making any tough decisions,” said [Yankee Institute head] Fergus Cullen.
“Change agents don’t have high approval ratings,” said State Representative David McCluskey, Democrat of West Hartford. “Change agents are the ones who polarize people. She is not a risk taker. She is playing it safe.” (Pazniokas)
This is an argument we’ve heard before. Rell is a lightweight who won’t make any tough decisions, she blows in the wind, reads the polls, gives the public what they want and never takes unpopular stands. There’s a certain amount of truth to that. Gov. Rell is constantly reinventing herself based on the situation.
And yet the public doesn’t seem to mind. Maybe part of the key to Rell’s popularity is that her variable convictions come from a place that is not ideological.
“She doesn’t have a real partisan identity,” said Adrienne Fulco, the director of the public policy and law program at Trinity College.
She doesn’t come off as a hypocrite, because she rarely appears as a representative of a particular ideological point of view. Or, as I’ve been suspecting for a while, voters care less about sticking with a single point of view than people in the political and pundit classes think. After the past eight (or thirty, really) years, who can blame them?
There’s an academic paper or twenty in trying to figure out the secret of why Jodi Rell is so popular. A few more of my own thoughts not covered above:
- Rell comes across as very sensible and pragmatic without being preachy or dogmatic. She has an understated style that resonates with many people in this state. She isn’t particularly compelling or charismatic, but she has turned that into a strength. Her speeches, especially her high-profile ones, have tended to be simple, down to earth and straight to the point.
- She’s kind of the un-politician, or at least, that’s her image. She does not project a huge ego (contrast with Rowland, John G). She is, however, politically adept. She’s out-maneuvered the Democratic leadership more than once. Speaking f the Democrats, they make a very useful foil for her (especially Jim Amann. She must miss him).
- She didn’t have to run for governor before having occupied the office for over two years. I think this is crucial. The very things that make voters like Rell as governor would have been handicaps as a first-time gubernatorial candidate. Think about this: Rell made barely a splash in state politics before becoming John Rowland’s lieutenant governor, and kept a low profile during her lengthy tenure in that position. She briefly considered running in 2002 before Rowland announced for a third term. If that had happened, she would have had a difficult time. It’s hard to see her breaking out of a pack to win a primary, or defeating a Democratic opponent from the position of lieutenant governor in either 2002 or, if Rowland had not been brought down by scandal, in 2006. I don’t believe a sitting lieutenant governor has ever won the governorship in Connecticut’s modern history, either, which makes things even more difficult.
- Lisa Moody plays an incredibly useful role in the Rell administration, in that she is the source of all political skulduggery, while Rell stays clean. Someone’s screwing Rob Simmons out of a job? Someone’s holding ethically questionable fundraisers? Someone’s got a list of arts donors? That must be Lisa Moody. Jodi Rell’s not involved. Moody soaks up all the badness. It reminds me of the old Russian trope that held that the Tsar was good and kind, it was just his advisers who were bleeding the people dry.
- She keeps very intelligent, tight control of her image as a frugal, grandmotherly, competent figure. Everything she does reinforces this image, which is why recent criticisms of her as being disconnected or even absent from her job have not stuck. No attacks lobbed against Rell by Democrats have ever managed to pierce this image. They may have more success as 2010 rolls around, but it isn’t something to count on.
- People like divided government. I don’t know how large of a role this plays in the complex set of factors that make up her popularity, but I do think that Rell acts as a counterbalance to the Democrats, and that many voters like her in that role.
Rell has yet to announce for 2010, but I would be very surprised if she decided to pass on re-election at this point. She will almost certainly be re-nominated by the GOP, despite some differences with her party. Whichever Democrat emerges from what is certain to be a hotly-contested primary will face a mountain to climb.
Rell’s stratospheric popularity has survived five years, a re-election campaign, several small scandals and a financial meltdown. It is, despite all claims to the contrary, solid. Is there anything (or anyone) out there capable of putting a dent in it?
Pazniokas, Mark. “What Polls Don’t Tell About Gov. Rell.” New York Times 10 April, 2009.