Tom Corbett’s costly schmooze deficit

     (From left) Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Tom Fitzgerald, NewsWorks political writer Dick Polman, and Philadelphia Daily News columnist John Baer (Photo by Elise Vider)

    (From left) Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Tom Fitzgerald, NewsWorks political writer Dick Polman, and Philadelphia Daily News columnist John Baer (Photo by Elise Vider)

    Tip O’Neill, the legendary House Speaker, famously said that “all politics is local,” but it’s just as true that all politics is personal.

    Issues are crucial, of course, but politicians need to be able to sell themselves and schmooze with people. It’s a flesh-and-blood business.

    Case in point: Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, whose sales-and-schmooze deficit is a big reason why everyone is writing his political obituary. So it went on Wednesday, when I hosted two seasoned journalists at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House. Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Tom Fitzgerald and Philadelphia Daily News columnist John Baer take it as a given that Corbett is fully roasted and ready for carving. They duly carved.

    And since they’re more knowledgable than I, on the details of Corbett’s deficit, I’ll yield the floor today.  The whole event is on video, but these comments were key: 

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    Baer: “Salesmanship and demeanor (are critical), the way you conduct yourself (with the public), the way you deal with the legislature, the way you deal with the press. He’s been horrible in all three categories. When you’re with him…at a public event, he won’t engage people. He’ll go and get his own plate and sit at his own table and won’t work the room, he won’t talk to people.”

    Fitzgerald: “He’ll stay off by himself, it’s an extraordinary thing.”

    Baer: “If you want to talk about his dogs or his grandchildren, he’s right there.”

    Fitzgerald: “He would be a great neighbor. He’d be that guy, if there was a horrible snowfall, he owns a snowblower and you don’t, he’d be like, ‘Let me get that for ya, John.’ And he’d blast it out. He’s a very decent, nice man. He has some of the worst political skills I’ve ever witnessed.  And I don’t say that with any disrespect, it’s just based on my experience.”

    Baer: (on the contrast between Corbett and his gregarious predecessor): “Ed Rendell could be with you for 10 minutes, you’d be convinced you were childhood friends….I was campaigning with him in Springfield Mall outside the city (during the 2002 gubernatorial race). Rendell’s going up to everyone he sees, and one guy is leaning against a wall with his arms crossed and he says, ‘I’m a Republican, keep moving.’ And so Ed respects his space, but the guy says, ‘Wait, my wife’s been in that gift shop for 20 minutes, if you can get her out of there, you’ve got my vote.’ Ed goes to the front of the store and says ‘I’ve got an announcement, everybody. Mary Ann has to leave the store at once!’ She’s at the checkout counter, she cracks up, the cashier cracks up, she comes out, the guy comes over, puts out his hand and says, ‘You got my vote.'”

    Fitzgerald (on Corbett’s failure to sell his argument that his education cuts haven’t been nearly as bad as people think): “He could’ve helped himself a lot. In this campaign, in the last few months, he has made that argument – ‘Look at the chart throughout my administration.’ And it’s technical, and you can quibble with it, but he has a case. But by the time he was making it, folks had closed their minds to him, largely….(Democrat Tom Wolf’s door-knocking Philadelphia canvassers) say, ‘If you care about your childrens’ and grandchildrens’ education, vote for Wolf’…It has been easy – once they make people aware that there is an election.”

    Baer (on Corbett’s repeated boast, during a recent debate, that there are 250,00 job openings on the state jobs website): “I thought, ‘Dude, no, don’t (keep saying it). Because now it’s a challenge (for the press to scrutinize the list closely). And within an hour, (it turned out ) half the jobs were in other countries, some were for strippers – “

    Fitzgerald: “One was for a mother-daughter lapdance team.”

    Baer: “Nobody on his (campaign) had the sense to look at that thing before they bragged about it….Just think in recent times how badly (Corbett’s) salesmanship) has been. HealthyPA (Corbett’s version of Medicaid expansion) – nobody thought he would get federal approval. He got it. He was on vacation in South Carolina at the time (he got approval). If you’re running a campaign for re-election, you come home, you hold a news conference, and you say ‘I did what no Republican in Washington could do, I took on Obamacare and I won and it’s gonna benefit the people of Pennsylvania, and it will insure half a million new people.’ You win your base, and you win some points with the other side. (But) he didn’t say a thing about it. They put out a press release….

    “I don’t mean this in an unkind way, but he’s not a smart man. He’s a decent human being, good family man, devout Roman Catholic, sticks to his faith, loves his dogs – there’s nothing to dislike. But he’s not very smart.”

    Fitzgerald (on the porn habits of state officials, a scandal that originated in Corbett”s office back when he was attorney general): “Corbett is snakebit….I don’t know what he could’ve done differently (to stop underlings from emailing porn). What else can befall him? He’s got the cloud following him around, like Charlie Brown, and it’s constantly raining….On some personal level, I don’t believe he wants to be governor.”

    Baer: “It starts at the top. If your candidate is not 100 percent engaged and doesn’t have the fire in the belly to do what’s necessary…what it takes is, you have a message and you drive it and drive it and drive it – and that hasn’t happened in this campaign. And there are those who think that maybe he does not want to be governor. Anecdotally, we were told that not long into his first term he was privately telling people, ‘I was not prepared for this.’

    “And there are those who think he still isn’t.”


    WHYY/NewsWorks will do its own riff on the ’14 midterm elections at a forum next Wednesday night. Easy to sign up.



    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman, and on Facebook.


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