Former Gov. Jim Edgar put the Illinois political world on alert the other night by using the words “somewhat incompetent governor” in what most of his listeners took as a dig at fellow Republican Bruce Rauner.

Edgar told me Friday he wasn’t referring to Rauner at all, but rather to former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

“Bruce Rauner might be a lot of things. He’s not incompetent,” the former governor said after I called him to clarify remarks he made the previous evening at an event Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. We’ll get to the actual remarks later.

I believe Edgar, just as I believe he really was referring to Rauner when he also noted in the same talk that House Speaker Mike Madigan is “not the big problem here.”

OPINION

I was glad Edgar saved me the trouble of defending Rauner’s competency, although a little disappointed he wouldn’t help me elucidate the “lot of things” that might better describe our current governor’s shortcomings.

It’s no secret Edgar does not approve of the approach Rauner has taken to governing Illinois, in particular his insistence on Democrats acquiescing to elements of his political agenda as a prelude to a state budget.

Edgar believes the first priority of any governor ought to be getting a budget to pay the state’s bills and to keep the government functioning properly.

Edgar privately offered Rauner advice to this effect in the early months of his administration, and when that guidance went unheeded, he began to make public his views, softly at first and more pointedly as time went on.

Rauner has made clear he doesn’t care what Edgar has to say and considers him to be part of the problem in Illinois politics, just not quite as a big a problem as the Great Satan of the 13th Ward, House Speaker Mike Madigan.

With Edgar now 18 years removed from the governor’s office, I’m not entirely sure how much his opinion still matters. But people who take their politics in moderation still appear interested, which made Edgar’s endorsement of Rauner valuable in the 2014 election.

Edgar was speaking Thursday at SIU’s Paul Simon Public Policy Institute when he was questioned anew about the state’s political wars and offered his strongest pushback yet to Rauner’s cartoonish depiction of Madigan as the cause of Illinois’ problems.

“I think [Madigan] has been overly maligned by the news media and maybe my party the last few years now,” Edgar said. “He should be maligned a little bit, but I think they’ve gone overboard.”

“He is not the problem. He might be a little bit of the problem, but he is not the big problem here,” Edgar continued.

Almost daily, I hear from somebody on the evils of the all-powerful Madigan, repeating back the simplistic narrative they have been fed. And I agree he is very powerful, and I would go farther than Edgar to say Madigan is indeed a big problem.

But I was grateful to hear Edgar say: “Contrary to what a lot of people think, the Speaker of the House is not the most powerful person in Illinois government.”

“Even a weak governor has far more power than the speaker does. Not weak, there isn’t a weak governor. Illinois is a strong governor state,” Edgar said, correcting himself in reference to the structure of Illinois government.

That’s when he added: “Even a somewhat incompetent governor has more power than Mike Madigan.”

The audience immediately laughed and clapped, clearly thinking it was a reference to Rauner.

Edgar told me he should have clarified right away he had Blagojevich in mind. But he didn’t.

Edgar said he doesn’t blame Madigan for the state’s problems, or the budget stalemate in particular, because the main responsibility lies with the state’s governors — past and present.

“The governor is the one really that is the key person,” Edgar said.