Something I try to do with all my undergraduate students is get them to see that politicians are political animals, not normal people. Normal people value their privacy. Normal people avoid conflict when they can. Normal people privilege morals over power.
Not so for politicians.
They are human beings, of course, but we should be careful to avoid too much empathy. Political animals, after all, crave power most. If the choice is between doing the right thing and holding power, political animals choose the latter unless constituents force them, like good shepherds, to rethink their natural inclinations.
Gov. Dannel Malloy is no exception. He announced last week that he would not seek a third term. He was never a popular governor. Malloy won his first term in 2010 by a hair. He won his second term by a little more than a hair. He has gone on to be the second least popular governor in the country. Only when compared to New Jersey’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie does he look good.
I don’t feel sorry for him. His party will take good care of him. Maybe he’ll end up being appointed to the next Democratic administration in Washington after having lost that widely rumored opportunity with the election of President Donald Trump. I do, however, feel sorry for us. Malloy was doing what we the people asked him to do, but now that he’s doing it, we don’t want it.
It’s not that Malloy was a saint, but he did not deserve the unpopularity that drove him toward last week’s decision. First, he inherited a gigantic mess. Previous administrations were breathlessly irresponsible, failing to fund state pensions and cooking the books to make it look like our fiscal health was jim dandy when it was diseased. Second, Malloy took office when the financial panic of 2007-2008 was being fully felt at the state level.
Indeed, he raised taxes twice, the biggest increases in state history, and everyone is going to remember that. They are also going to remember that he forced public-employee unions to make concessions they have not been historically inclined to make.
But everyone should also remember Malloy had to. In 2011, he implemented honest accounting. We twice put him in charge to do that. But Generally Accepted Accounting Principles revealed a giant hole made deeper and blacker when tax receipts dried up on account of the world-historical impact of a worldwide recession.
The economy has barely recovered over the ensuing years, but the trend lines were established long ago. Connecticut has not seen significant economic growth for more than two decades. He tried to jump start growth by inducing firms to expand in state with the help of subsidies. He tried to grow wages by raising the minimum wage. In helping corporations and in helping workers, Malloy tried to please everyone. In the end, he pleased no one. If a firm left the state, Malloy was blamed. If it got state aid, Malloy was blamed.
He made it easy to blame him, though.
I’m not the first or last to note Malloy’s bullhorn style. Once he comes to a conclusion, he fights with the pulpit-pounding zeal of the newly converted. That holier-than-thou attitude can be trying if not annoying or even downright maddening. Malloy was almost normal in elevating righteousness over a craven appetite for power.
Still, when he was right, he was right. I’ll never forget the day in 2012 when he stood before television cameras to say: “Evil visited this community today.” He showed admirable courage after the Sandy Hook massacre of 20 first graders and six of their teachers. Despite strong political pressure, the governor successfully ushered through the Connecticut General Assembly a ban on military-style rifles, a ban that later withstood a fierce legal challenge.
That said, Connecticut firearms industry is thriving, as are many large businesses despite macroeconomic trends beyond any one governor’s control. Also: Wages are high. Crime is low. Medical marijuana is legal. Immigrants are welcome. Refugees, too. Green energy is a priority. The death penalty is gone. High school graduation rates are rising. And fewer people are incarcerated.
Malloy was doing what we wanted him to do. Then we changed our minds. I don’t know why. I don’t know what Malloy could have done differently. But such is the burden of the political animal.
Nothing is normal.
John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale, a business columnist for Hearst Connecticut Media, an essayist for the New Haven Register and a U.S. News & World Report contributing editor.