Rendell, blunt to the end

Salena Zito
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Posted: Dec 05, 2010 12:01 AM

Alan Simpson, the former Republican U.S. Senator from Wyoming who co-chairs President Obama’s deficit-reduction commission, was asked by a reporter the other day if he was going home to Wyoming.

Reportedly he replied, “No, I’m going into the witness protection program.”

That’s where delivering politics bluntly gets you these days.

Few politicians are willing to go there – although it appears outgoing Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell may have become an exception.

Asked about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi blasting the deficit panel’s proposed entitlement-spending cuts as “simply unacceptable,” Rendell prefaced his answer by saying he “loved Nancy to death.”

Then he added: “Pelosi’s response was disheartening to me ... especially her charges about raising the retirement age to 68 by 2050 and to 69 by 2075.”

“The American people, politicians and the president all have to get real about this,” Rendell said about the debt commission.

Next month, Rendell – a native New Yorker who served in the U.S. Army, earned his bachelor's and law degrees in Pennsylvania, and was elected twice each as Philadelphia’s district attorney and mayor and as the state’s governor – leaves office.

Along the way, he lost a mayor’s race and a gubernatorial primary, and he served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee and National Governors Association.

In December 2000, as DNC chairman, he famously said his party’s presidential candidate, Al Gore, "should act now and concede," even though Gore’s camp was arguing to the contrary.

Rendell is one of those larger-than-life figures and a skilled, often charming politician. Still, he was never able to charm the state legislature and never really seemed to be a creature of Harrisburg.

The results were endless budget stalemates.

Rendell, according to former Villanova University political scientist Bob Maranto, is “one of those thoroughly modern politicians: no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, only permanent self-interest. But at least he has the good judgment not to run for president.”

Rendell’s strength always came from his "steady as she goes" attitude and “if it ain’t broke, don't fix it" leadership. So while his legacy may be that he had some success in trying to fix things he felt didn't work (such as property taxes, school funding and the state’s procurement process), he was not the kind of guy who believes you up-end everything just for some ambitious, narcissistic vision of ideal government.

That probably explains why he and the Clintons get along: They understand that lasting change and lasting affection from the electorate really come from incremental change.

Change is hard – people like it in theory, but not in fact – and the trick to being a good politician is to bring about change slowly, so that the electorate can adjust to meet the new demands.

His low points are obvious: signing a pay raise for state legislators which later was repealed and then, at least according to some socially conservative voters, legalizing casino gambling.

While conservatives might like the fact that slot machines have helped fund schools and lowered property taxes, many opposed potentially degenerating cultural standards and the regressive nature of gambling.

The first interview this writer had with Rendell was during the heated 2006 midterm U.S. Senate campaign between Democrat Bob Casey Jr. and Republican Rick Santorum.

At the time, Rendell, who beat Casey in a particularly negative gubernatorial primary a few years earlier, hadn't campaigned with Casey yet – suggesting an unhealed rift between them.

Rendell’s answer to that was blunt: "Rick Santorum has proven that he gets the job done. … I will eventually campaign with Casey. But, no, you won't see me attack Santorum. I work well with him ... When it comes to Pennsylvania, Santorum delivers.”

A week later, as I sat with other reporters in the Washington studio of “Meet the Press” for the taping of a Casey-Santorum debate, the late Tim Russert asked Casey how he felt about Rendell’s remark.

A very awkward moment.

To Rendell’s credit, he never walked back on what he said, even though the quote generated the buzz of the day in Washington and Pennsylvania.

Rendell leaves office next month with his lowest approval rating ever. In a particularly bad year for anyone who is a Democrat, he understands political competition is never-ending – and that if you don't win one day, you go home and work for a comeback.

One of his great attributes is also Clintonesque: He understands you don't blame the other party for trying to beat you; you blame yourself for not beating the other party.