Adam’s off ox

Can governors change history?

One of the quainter rituals of any campaign, along with “debates,” is the newspaper editorial endorsement. It proceeds from three dubious assumptions – one, that anyone reads editorials besides the editor’s mother, two, that voters are swayable by argument and three, that a newspaper’s institutional opinion, being better informed than most, is thus automatically wise.

Evidence on that final point came recently, thanks to my brother opinion-mongers at the Daily Herald. The Herald, as you should know, is the third-largest English-language daily in the state after the big Chicago papers. It recently editorialized about the curious campaign being waged by Messrs. Quinn and Rauner to see which rat can swim fastest to climb back onto a sinking ship.

The Herald’s deep thinkers picked Rauner as their man, albeit without much enthusiasm. Basically, they prefer Rauner because he is not Mr. Quinn. Now, not being Mr. Quinn is easy – millions have done it – but that might be the only thing that Mr. Rauner has got right in the paper’s view, he having put forward proposals that are (to quote the Herald) vague, naïve, opportunistic and simplistic.

Fine. We all – don’t we? – agree that Quinn v. Rauner is not much of a choice. (As I see it, the difference between Quinn and Rauner is the difference between cancer and a car wreck.) More interesting is whether either man is capable of meeting the Herald’s expectation of the next governor. “The question is,” it asks, “which of the two men can change the course of Illinois history?”

What does it mean for a governor to change history? The Herald did not say, so we must guess. I suspect what the paper has in mind is a fundamental shift in the basic scope or methods of government. Henry Horner presided over such a change during the Depression. Illinois had no social welfare system when he first took the oath of office in 1933, and it had the rudiments of a comprehensive one when he died in 1940.

But that was Washington’s doing, not Horner’s. Horner pushed through the state’s first sales tax to pay relief to the unemployed – itself a fundamental change to the revenue system – only because FDR was sick and tired of paying 99 percent of the state’s tab and threatened to cut off Illinois at a time when folks back home were facing unprecedented hardship. In other words, Horner did not change Illinois history; depression and FDR changed Illinois.

Which brings me to Thomas Ford, Illinois’ governor from 1842 to 1848. (See my 2010 column, “Giving immortality to their littleness.”) Ford also presided over state government at a time when its finances were shambles, when it was threatened with default on extravagant debts run up by a General Assembly that had been too eager to give people what they wanted. Repudiation of that debt would have cut off a growing state from sources of capital for a generation, but new taxes heavy enough to pay the debt in full would have triggered a population exodus, which would have so crippled an economy left fragile by depression.

“To many persons it seemed impossible to devise any system of policy, out of this jumble and chaos of confusion, which would relieve the State,” Ford would write, yet he did just that. If any governor changed Illinois history, he did. As he recalled it, “The politicians on neither side, without a bold lead to the contrary, by some one high in office, would never have dared to risk their popularity by being the first to advocate an increase of taxes to be paid by a tax-hating people.” Ford provided that lead, but the legislature was ready to be led. The prod to act came from without as it had in the 1930s. Only when bankruptcy loomed – and the state was within six weeks of being wholly out of money, cash or credit – did lawmakers in Springfield show any of what Ford called “zeal ... for sustaining the public honor.”

Leaders do not make events. Events make leaders. Bruce Rauner is not going to change the course of Illinois history because no governor has or can, by himself, change the course of Illinois history. The State of Illinois might yet escape another fiscal calamity that everyone fears will doom the State of Illinois to bankruptcy and shame, but that will happen only when the state finally and irrevocably faces default and ignominy as it did in the 1840s. If and when that confrontation occurs, it will be the financiers, not the governor, who will have changed the course of Illinois history.

So elect Quinn, Rauner or Adam’s off ox, it doesn’t matter. The people who really run things will intervene decisively in Illinois affairs when the time is ripe – that is, when their interests are at stake, not yours.  

Contact James Krohe Jr. at

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