Popularity polls often reward avoiding, not facing, thorny issues

Published 6:54 pm Friday, July 26, 2019

The recent special legislative session resulting in temporary relief from soaring pension payments faced by regional universities, local health departments, rape crisis centers and other groups known as quasi-government agencies gave Republican Gov. Matt Bevin a political victory in this year’s gubernatorial contest.

Yet even the governor himself acknowledges that House Bill 1 doesn’t begin to solve Kentucky’s pension crisis — not even for those quasi groups.

Still, it offers yet another reminder of the stark contrast between how Bevin governs versus the approach taken by his predecessor and former Gov. Steve Beshear.

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Beshear’s warm and fuzzy aw-shucks personality and southern twang gave him the kind of popularity common among Kentucky governors in modern times.

Morning Consult, the same left-of-center outfit labeling Bevin as the nation’s most unpopular governor, gave Beshear a 57% percent approval rating during the final months of his eight years in office.

Those numbers are almost identical to the current disapproval rating of his successor, whose blunt talk and reform-minded approach brings its own share of uncomfortability — especially those among Frankfort’s political class which have overseen the tanking of the state’s pension system.

The campaign of Andy Beshear, the former governor’s son who’s currently both the attorney general and Democrats’ choice to try and unseat Bevin, is trying to parlay those poll numbers into help for his uphill campaign.

Bevin says it’s “irrelevant,” noting he’s never been on the upside of a poll and yet won 106 out of 120 counties in the 2015 election, beating Andy Beshear’s predecessor in the attorney general’s office by 9 percent to win the keys to the governor’s mansion in 2015.

What is relevant – and certainly not coincidental — is that the only two governors above the 50% disapproval rating in the most recent Morning Consult polls are the chief executives most willing to take on their states’ pension fiascos.

The most common denominator found in the leadership of Bevin and Gina Raimondo, Rhode Island’s Democratic governor, is not party or political ideology — one’s conservative, the other a progressive.

It’s a bulldog willingness to confront the rough issues, which always raises the level of discomfort even among friendlies, as Bevin discovered in this year’s primary.

Both governors have demonstrated an unwavering willingness to deliver the unvarnished truth — especially when it comes to their respective states’ pension predicaments — and are willing to do good even when others don’t feel good about it.

That said, I’ve not hesitated to criticize this administration and the majority party it leads when it strays, whether it’s doubling down on building a disastrous government-owned broadband network, making taxpayers direct shareholders in a private company or meetings of the entire legislature behind closed doors of the people’s House just so politicians can be more comfortable discussing a consultant’s controversial pension recommendations.

But Bevin’s unwillingness to put personal popularity above principled policy is worthy of praise while the modus operandi of politicians like Steve Beshear demands our sternest criticism for seeking to avoid roiling politically potent groups by refusing to lead on meaningful pension reform altogether and allowing retirement-system crisis to grow worse by billions during his eight years as governor.

But he was popular with Morning Consult!

Of course!

If you don’t make tough decisions about prioritizing spending and reforming benefits to save the retirement systems, or, even worse, you believe — as even some in Frankfort apparently still do — that there really is no pension calamity, then it’s easy to make those poll numbers rise and easier yet to leave the hard, politically perilous mess for the next guy to clean up.

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. He can be reached at jwaters@freedomkentucky.com and @bipps on Twitter.