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GEORGE KENNEDY: Nixon's State of the State speech short on substance

Thursday, January 20, 2011 | 3:43 p.m. CST

As I watched Gov. Nixon deliver his State of the State speech Wednesday night, I couldn't help feeling some sympathy for him. He's an uncomfortable public speaker, with a great deal to be uncomfortable about.

For one thing, he probably was at least a little uneasy standing with his back to two of the three biggest obstacles to his success. The biggest obstacle, of course, is the state's still-suffering economy. But House Speaker Steve Tilley and Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, with their Republican majorities in both houses, aren't far behind.

Mr. Kinder, I thought, looked especially pained when he had to introduce the man whose job he hungers for and wholly insincere in the obligatory applause he joined at the end of the speech. Later, when he gave the Republican response, he was scornfully dismissive of both the governor's record and his plea for bipartisanship.

Gov. Nixon's message was long on platitudes ("Our best days are the days ahead") and short on substance (no mention of the 7 percent cut in his higher education budget). I don't see how it could have been otherwise, given the realities of economics and politics and the governor's own conservative instincts. His ritual pledge of no tax increases was a predictable applause line.

In a pre-speech interview with Tony Messenger of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Gov. Nixon described himself with a sports metaphor, as the unappreciated fullback who plows into the line hoping for only modest gains. "A lot of this job is three yards and a cloud of dust," he told Tony.

A few days earlier, assessing his first two years in office for David Lieb of The Associated Press, he chose another self-description. "I've been a solid steward for the economy we've had."

There's not much in either image to convey excitement or vision. Fullbacks typically do more blocking than ball carrying. Stewards are expected to guard what they're given.

True, the governor did say repeatedly Wednesday that he's "fighting for every job." In that combat, he pledged to be "aggressive and relentless." He introduced a sawmill operator who's hiring two helpers, and an executive of Ford, which has pledged to spend $400 million to keep an assembly line open. Both benefit from state tax breaks. It sure sounded like a defensive struggle, though, as he pointed out how he has cut $1.8 billion in state spending and eliminated more than 3,000 state employees.

He did promise "stable, even funding" for K-12 schools by spreading the use of federal stimulus dollars over two years. However, as he didn't say, that will leave the schools more than $200 million short of what they should get under the foundation formula next year.

The streaming video on the governor's website cut out near the end of the speech, so I had to rely on KBIA to hear that he sees "the shadows of recession lifting" and his conclusion that "here in the heartland, we share common values and common goals."

The first of those assertions seemed honestly hopeful, but the second struck me as being, at least in the legislative context, borderline delusional.

While the Republican majorities have said they too are focused on jobs, their actual agenda looks more like an ideological attack on their traditional targets. They want to weaken unions, shift the tax burden to the poor and even undo the puppy mill reform approved by the voters in November. Oh yes, and they remain intent on keeping the uninsured without coverage.

David Lieb's analysis pointed out that politics and economics have prevented Gov. Nixon from keeping many of the promises he made when he was elected. Two years into his term, he demonstrated that he has learned from experience, as he refrained Wednesday from making any promises, other than the one to keep fighting for jobs.

The biggest job for which he'll be fighting, of course, is his own.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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