Gov. Bruce Rauner ushered his communications staff out the door Wednesday night after they put out a boneheaded statement that he would not comment on a racially charged cartoon because he’s “a white male.”
Why would the governor’s people do something so stupid?
Because they thought that’s what he wanted, and for good reason.
Rauner is loath to take a stand on pretty much anything unrelated to the state budget and the evils of public unions, even when his bobbing and weaving begins to look ridiculous. His communications staff was just following the boss’ lead, if in a particularly goofy way.
The governor could have saved himself a lot of trouble if he’d just said in the first place what he said hours later, trying to undo the damage: “I can understand why some people found the cartoon offensive.”
Rauner’s problem, though, is not one bad political cartoon. It is his resistance to taking a principled stand on almost any issue beyond the scope of his cherished pro-business “turnaround agenda.” He has been governor for going on three years, but you might think he was elected only to be the state’s budget director.
All politicians do this. We get that. You won’t find a lot of profiles in courage in Springfield or Washington. But Rauner has shown a particular phobia, even among weak-kneed politicians, for taking a public stand that might offend his core voters.
When other governors, Democrats and Republicans, flocked to Washington last spring to protest changes in the Affordable Care Act that would have stripped Medicaid benefits from millions of poor people, Rauner was nowhere to be seen.
When President Donald Trump, even as a candidate, threatened to cut all federal funding to Chicago and other sanctuary cities — where unauthorized immigrants can live without fear of police harassment — Rauner declined to comment.
When Trump issued an executive order in January banning refugees and immigrants from seven majority Muslim countries in the Middle East, Rauner did an imitation of a waffle iron. He noted that “serious concerns” about the order “have been raised” and should be resolved by the courts. Only a month later, when it mattered less, did he call the executive order “overly broad.”
When Rauner is asked where he stands on immigration reform, he replies with the safest generalities. He supports immigration reform, he says, and Congress should get to it. We recall a Sun-Times Editorial Board meeting at which we tried six ways to Sunday to get the governor to be more specific. Did he favor, for one, giving a special break to young people who were brought here illegally as small children?
The governor would not say.
Rauner has a “tell,” as they say in poker, that signals when he’s about to blow past a question. He starts by saying, “I will say this . . . ” or “You know what?” Then come the platitudes.
So, for example, what does the governor have to say, as a reporter once asked, about Trump’s demonizing rhetoric about immigrants?
“You know what?” he replied. “Whether Democrat or Republican or independent, it doesn’t matter. We need to care about each other.”
The irony here, as everybody knows, is that Rauner is not hiding extreme views, certainly not on basic social issues. As far as we can suss out, his views on immigration, abortion, religious freedom, health care and the like are centrist to liberal. Which, of course, is his problem. That stuff won’t play in next year’s Republican primary.
But what’s the fear? Once Rauner gets past the primary to the general election, which looks easy enough, he will need the votes of the same moderate independents who put him over the top in the 2014 election.
Rauner is showing small signs of moving in that direction. Shaking off the influence of the conservative Illinois Policy Institute, which is where he rounded up all those staffers he just said goodbye to, is a start. And on Monday he is expected to sign two good laws that his conservative base opposes.
The first law would allow automatic voter registration at state driver’s license facilities, while the second would prohibit police in Illinois from detaining or arresting a person solely based on their immigration status or on a federal immigration retainer.
And late on Thursday, it was announced that Democrats and the governor have brokered a deal to overhaul the way state schools are funded.
Like the deal of not — the details were just emerging — at least Rauner is taking a stand.
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