Governor Bruce Rauner regularly attempts to “go over the heads” of the news media and talk directly to the public without any journalistic filters. Usually for people in his particular position, that’s just not possible. Governors aren’t presidents, after all. They can’t deliver Oval Office addresses that are carried live by television networks or give stump speeches that cable news networks regularly broadcast. They don’t have millions of Twitter followers or Facebook-video watchers.
That hasn’t stopped Rauner from trying. He has spent millions on television advertising even in non-election years attempting to frame his issues his own way – mainly to avoid taking any blame for his state grinding to a halt without a budget, and to shift all blame to House Speaker Michael Madigan and the Democrats.
Aside from those ads, most of his Facebook videos have fewer than 10,000 or so views, a tiny fraction of Illinois’ population. He only has about 20,000 Twitter followers, which is less than I have.
So last week’s Old State Capitol speech about the need for “unity” was a true rarity. Rauner’s three-minute-15-second address was carried live by several television stations, including the one with the largest news audience in the Chicago region, Channel 7.
He didn’t break much ground with what he said. What was new was the platform he used. Because he inserted himself into TV news broadcasts, tons of people got a chance to hear him speak live on the topic of his choosing for the very first time without interruption – which has simply never happened before in this state.
The extreme drama of more than two years with no budget, a state teetering on fiscal collapse, and a crucial special legislative session starting the following day was just too juicy to resist for the stations. Toss in the location of the Old State Capitol – which was used by both Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama for major speeches – and the setup was nearly perfect.
The governor used lots of buzzwords such as “compromise,” “bipartisan,” and “unity.” He got in his pitches for a property-tax freeze, school funding, and term limits, all hugely popular out there in Voter Land. Not once did he utter the phrase “tax increase,” even though he supports a plan to increase the income-tax rate by about a third. And he called the impasse “unnecessary” even though the Statehouse war was basically his idea from the get-go.
It was all too much for the Democrats, who mostly reacted harshly. Chris Kennedy labeled it as “a few minutes of empty remarks in an empty room.” Senator Daniel Biss called it “the worst infomercial in our state’s fiscal history.” J.B. Pritzker said: “Rauner has decided he wants to make people think that he’d like to work together to get something done.” Ameya Pawar called Rauner a “liar, a fraud, and a flake.” And the House Democrats’ official response accused the governor of “talking out of both sides of his mouth.”
To the people who watched the speech, those were likely seen as overreactions, if they even bothered to look up the reactions. Rauner’s specialty is winning the news cycle, and he most certainly won the week with that little address of his.
Rauner’s speech wasn’t about getting a budget deal. It was about portraying himself as the good guy and the person who is not to blame and then letting the other side take its nastiest shots to prove how they’re not so good. “Why are they picking on this man who only wants bipartisan unity?” would be the preferred message received.
On the other hand, Rauner was poorly lit, his face and head were distractingly shiny, the empty room had lousy acoustics, and he had what appeared to be a cold sore on his upper lip.
Television is all about the visuals, which is why the best way to effectively rate a TV ad is to turn off the sound. People see way more than they hear. What they probably heard last week were the poll-tested, tried-and-true buzzwords. What they saw may not have been so great.
Still, the fact that Rauner pulled it off is quite an accomplishment. I used to tell Rod Blagojevich to stop trying to go over our heads and learn to deal with the news media’s filter. Rauner figured out how to do what Blagojevich never could.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax (a daily political newsletter) and CapitolFax.com.