“The word ‘politics,’ I have no great liking for that,” President Dwight Eisenhower once said. Asked about Ike’s statement, his successor, President John F. Kennedy, responded: “I do have a great liking for the word ‘politics.’ It’s the way a President gets things done.”
That’s in a passage from Richard Reeves’ President Kennedy: Profile of Power, a brilliant, 30-year-old fly-on-the-wall reconstruction of the young president’s decision-making prowess. Reeves shows us a chess player always multiple moves ahead of those around him. (And also an ironist: When the 1960 election was called for him in the dead of night, Reeves reports, JFK bounced up from his sofa in the Kennedy Hyannis Port compound, looked at his and Ben Bradlee’s pregnant wives, and announced: “Okay, girls, you can remove those pillows — we won!”)
Recently, as I watched our governor’s handling of the I-95 collapse become the talk of the nation, I’ve been thinking of JFK’s embrace of that which has fallen so far into disfavor nowadays: Politics. Shapiro these last weeks wasn’t just a cheerleader, though he was that. He also exhibited discrete political and chief executive skills — the kind that only someone who has spent the last 11 years holding down public CEO positions could be in a position to pull off.
Would you be cool flying in a plane helmed by a pilot who has never actually flown but is mightily critical of those who have?
I’ve written before that, nearly 20 years ago, a bold-faced name Philly power broker dubbed Shapiro “the Jewish JFK.” Yes, it was a shorthand way to encapsulate Shapiro’s ambition and sheer smarts. But I also think the moniker was getting at just what Kennedy’s response to Ike’s comment shows. It’s popular now more than ever for candidates to express disdain for politics. But would you be cool flying in a plane helmed by a pilot who has never actually flown but is mightily critical of those who have? Shapiro exemplifies what happens when someone who has trained to do a thing gets to do the thing.
Let’s dissect how the governor did it in the context of what leadership really requires in politics today.
The value of just showing up
A few years back, after Josh Shapiro got more votes statewide than Joe Biden, the then-Attorney General explained the secret of his success to me: “Just showing up,” he said.
He was talking about Republican counties — those spots in our Commonwealth that James Carville was referencing when he famously defined Pennsylvania as “Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between.” Yet there Shapiro was, this Jewish pol from the Philadelphia suburbs, delivering the same message in Luzerne County as in Montgomery.
He didn’t know if he could win Luzerne, but if he could lose it by less than other Democrats, he saw a path to victory — and a roadmap for governing, because the message of his campaign would have been consistent with his rhetoric of representing all of the state, and not just its blue pockets.
Lines like “This is what it looks like when the ingenuity of Delco meets the grit of Philly” … served to rally a disparate population around common cause.
Lo and behold, in 2016, he won 3,057,010 votes to Trump’s 2,970,733. In 2020, he won 3,461,471 to Biden’s 3,458,229. In last year’s gubernatorial race, he took Luzerne by 1.4 percent, after Trump had won it in 2020 by 14 percent.
I thought of Shapiro’s rationale — just showing up — during his star turn these last weeks. There he was, showing up — even throwing a party at Xfinity Live! for the workers who toiled day and night to get the stretch of interstate back up and running. He seemed to be everywhere — even on Fox News, where he proclaimed himself “a big NASCAR guy” while explaining the help provided by the jet dryer from Pocono Raceway when rain threatened to delay the work. But it wasn’t just about showing up …
It’s also about what you say
Let’s contrast two leaders who were on-site at the I-95 collapse. There was our dour-faced Mayor, actually acknowledging that he had to be told by his staff to answer all those calls to his cellphone coming in from a 202 area code — the President was trying to reach him. Seriously? When a federal highway collapses in your city and you see a 202 area code, you don’t think it might be the Big Guy? And why would you allow your people to share an anecdote about you that makes you look too checked out to serve?
Then there was Shapiro, who framed the issue as “our championship,” a challenge to a city of diehard, and long suffering, sports fanatics. Like JFK, and the orator he’s most modeled himself after — President Obama — Shapiro often speaks without teleprompting, and many of his comments struck at a communitarian, populist theme — without populism’s evil cousins racism and elitism.
“He cleared the field in a Democratic primary for governor — that never happens.” — Ken Smukler, political consultant
Lines like “This is what it looks like when the ingenuity of Delco meets the grit of Philly.” “We cut through the red tape, we developed a creative plan, and we are executing.” And, “We can do big things again in Pennsylvania … We work together, and we get shit done” all served to rally a disparate population around common cause.
Shapiro, who was a quite good point guard in high school at the then-named Akiba Hebrew Academy, was rallying his team. When the 24/7 live feed of the site implausibly went viral, he even gave credit for the idea elsewhere, singling out his Chief of Staff Dana Fritz for it.
Let the boxscore reflect: Assist, Shapiro.
Yes, but how is he at the inside game?
”All you need to know about how good Josh is at understanding optics is that, when they put the live feed on the screen at XFinity Live!, the place broke out in cheers like it was an Eagles game,” says longtime political consultant Ken Smukler. “That’s a given. But what he really excels at is the inside game of politics, and all you need to know about that is he cleared the field in a Democratic primary for governor — that never happens. That not one person challenged him is a testament to his political skill — he lined up all the donors, worked all the relationships, and was thinking ahead enough that he was essentially running for governor from the minute he was sworn in as Attorney General. No one else had a chance, and they knew it.”
Thinking ahead — that’s been a hallmark of Shapiro’s. Now that he’s exhibited such public-facing chops on the I-95 front, there has already been a lot of premature speculation about him as a presidential aspirant. So now the question turns to — as it does for another charismatic newcomer on the national scene, Maryland Governor Wes Moore — whether he possesses the inside political skill to get things done?
What do I mean by the inside game? There’s that old Mario Cuomo line: You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose. Does Shapiro have the interpersonal backroom political chops Reeves shows JFK wielding? This is a small thing, but it does illustrate a talent: The political world in 1961 was expecting Adlai Stevenson to be JFK’s choice for Secretary of State, not least Adlai Stevenson himself. But JFK hired Dean Rusk, telling Rusk that “Adlai might forget who’s the president and who’s the Secretary of State.” Let Reeves pick it up there:
As Rusk sat there, Kennedy picked up a telephone and called Stevenson to ask him to be Ambassador to the United Nations. Rusk listened, dazzled, as Kennedy worked on Stevenson — flattering, stroking, prodding. As Kennedy described the job, Rusk thought there would be nothing left for him and the President to do. Finally, Stevenson said yes, he would serve under Rusk.
That’s politics: Getting folks to do what you want them to do — without them realizing you just got them to do what you wanted them to do. Can Shapiro do that, weaponize a mix of charm, cajoling, threat and subtle manipulation to get his way?
As Smukler suggests, Shapiro has already shown adeptness in this regard. During his time in the State House, he came up with and was instrumental in seeing to fruition an innovative backroom deal in which Democrats, in the majority by all of one vote and faced with a fractious caucus, struck a deal with a friendly Republican, Dennis O’Brien, to become Speaker of the House. Shapiro — who became Deputy Speaker in the deal — was critical in a bipartisan agreement that left Democrats with a Speaker of the opposite party they could control.
As Montgomery County Commissioner, Shapiro instituted zero-based budgeting, an innovative policy, while co-opting (some might say playing) his Republican colleague, Bruce Castor. And as Attorney General, he schooled Philly D.A. Larry Krasner in the art of political jujitsu. When it came to light that Krasner and his staff refer to prosecutors he’d fired as “war criminals” and that those who had gone to work for Shapiro had “fled to Paraguay,” a reference to one of the countries that gave safe harbor to Nazis after World War II, Shapiro didn’t deign to punch down. He simply sent an email to his staff condemning the DA’s “hateful speech,” which naturally got picked up by the media. In short order, the Anti-Defamation League was admonishing Krasner, and the D.A. found himself where no elected official wants to be: In a defensive crouch, forced to point out that he never actually used the word “Nazi.”
That’s politics: Getting folks to do what you want them to do — without them realizing you just got them to do what you wanted them to do.
Moreover, as Reeves documents with Kennedy, Shapiro seems to always be thinking multiple moves ahead. He’s on Fox News proclaiming his NASCAR bona fides because he knows that only 25 percent of the nation identifies as “liberal” and that the greatest threat his party faces is its hemorrhaging of White and Black working class voters. Playing to reasonable kitchen table issues — and not pronouns, CRT and open borders — is both good governance and in his longterm political interest.
Here’s the most recent example. When Shapiro first introduced his budget, he proposed the biggest Basic Education Funding increase in state history, but didn’t tout funding Lifeline Scholarships, the voucher program he pledged to support in the campaign. What are they? In the worst-performing 15 percent of district schools, Lifeline Scholarships, ranging from $5,000 to $15,000 per student, can be used for private school tuition and related education expenses. In effect, it would provide parents of kids in subpar schools the opportunity to do as well-off parents have always done: Switch their child to a higher-performing school.
It’s a trend sweeping the country, fueled perhaps by the alarming learning loss caused by Covid-era school shutdowns. So far this year, according to a Georgetown education policy research center, lawmakers in 14 states have passed bills establishing such school choice programs — commonly referred to as Education Scholarship Accounts, or ESAs — and 42 states have introduced such bills.
What is undeniable and, frankly, refreshing, is that it’s an example of the type of sophisticated politicking that Pennsylvania is going to need.
Teachers’ unions are vehemently opposed; they see it as draining dollars from public schools. (Though, according to Education Week, Arizona’s program — the nation’s oldest — shows no mass exodus from public schools. One study finds that the “stranded costs” left to the School District of Philadelphia when students opt for charters are nearly half of what the District reports.) So Shapiro’s support during the campaign courageously flew in the face of his own party’s orthodoxy.
But why was it glossed over in his first pass budget proposal? Maybe he was holding it back for strategic reasons. Now that we’re in the 11th hour of negotiations — the deadline is today, but in practice it’s been a pretty soft deadline — could there be a grand bargain in the offing? Democrats have been wanting to raise Pennsylvania’s shameful and uncompetitive $7.25 minimum wage — New Jersey’s is double that! — for instance. Could Lifeline Scholarships be a chip in some type of deal that makes enough folks happy on both sides of the aisle that something passes? There was the Governor, after all, on Fox News last weekend, making the case for vouchers.
“I believe every child of God deserves a shot here in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and one of the best ways we can guarantee their success is making sure every child has a quality education,” he said. “I’ve been very clear: I’m open to that concept [Lifeline Scholarships], but I’ve also made crystal clear that I won’t take a dollar out of our public schools in order to achieve that. We’ve got to invest more in our children, not less.”
Let’s underscore the move here: Shapiro led with a proposal for record public school funding, which his base loves, waited nearly a couple of months, and only then — with the clock winding down — broached the subject of vouchers, making an equity-based argument for them, to boot.
Of course, nothing may come of this extra-innings voucher gambit, but what is undeniable and, frankly, refreshing, is that it’s an example of the type of sophisticated politicking that Pennsylvania is going to need if it wants to get moving again — to borrow none other than JFK’s long-ago phraseology.
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