Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon was just getting started on his State of the State speech this week when he delivered a curious call to arms.
“Inaction carries risks,” he told the General Assembly. “But it’s the risk takers who make history.”
The rhetorical flourish hung in the air like an out-of-body experience.
The only risky actions the governor proposed in the remainder of his 45-minute-long speech were measures like the expansion of Medicaid eligibility, which the Republican leaders of the legislature had already said they wouldn’t pursue, even though they should.
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And Nixon has proven over the last seven years to be a remarkably risk-averse governor.
With Missouri constantly needing money to invest in schools and citizens, Nixon refused in 2012 to support a statewide ballot measure to raise the tax on tobacco products. He waited until after the election that year, when he won a second term, to speak up in favor of Medicaid expansion.
He has called for reform of state ethics laws, including a cap on campaign contributions. He even promised to lead a ballot initiative if the General Assembly wouldn’t act. But he never followed through. The humiliation of a scandal-ridden legislative session, not the governor’s prompting, has finally forced lawmakers to act.
Nixon’s style has been to bob and weave, then join the parade when the route looks clear. If he makes history, it will more likely be for his inaction after the small city of Ferguson erupted in the aftermath of a police shooting than for any bold move on his part.
On the flip side, though, Nixon has managed state government well, advocated for disabled Missourians and vetoed the worst of the legislation that the GOP-dominated legislature sent his way.
If the first rule for a governor is “do no harm,” Nixon gets a passing grade.
That’s not the case with Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who spent nearly all of his State of the State speech this week taking responsibility and expressing remorse for the consequences of irresponsible risk-taking.
Ill-advised decisions to hook up the water supply for Flint, Mich., to an impure source and to skimp on a crucial anti-corrosive treatment in order to save money have resulted in a lead poisoning crisis in the impoverished city.
People warned Snyder’s managers they’d be taking a risk by pumping waters from the notoriously foul Flint River into homes, schools and businesses. They did it anyway, to save money.
For that, Snyder will make history, though surely not in the way envisoned by and for a governor once touted as a possible presidential prospect.
Over in Kansas, Gov. Sam Brownback sees himself as a risk taker. In his 2015 State of the State speech, he addressed critics who say that his decision to slash income tax rates three years ago was too risky.
“I’m the sort of guy who would have sent Alex Gordon from third base,” Brownback said, tapping into enthusiasm for the Kansas City Royals and the controversy over whether Gordon should have been waved on to try for a game-tying inside-the-park home run in the final game of the 2014 World Series.
But Gordon likely would have been called out. And the Kansas tax cuts have left the state in a continual rut that is now threatening the state’s ability to deliver many essential services. That will be Brownback’s legacy.
It’s a fine line, this risk-taking proposition.
You have the opportunity to govern a state, you want to take advantage of that. Be innovative, step forward, be a leader. Nixon may regret not doing more when he had the chance.
But risk taking is not far removed from recklessness. In the end, history is most likely to judge leaders on whether they could discern the difference.