The Right Thing

I am infamous in the Commonwealth Foundation office and in my family for being old fashioned.

There is a litany of reasons:  I wear ties a lot.  I even own a vest.  I don’t have cable.  I use antiquated words.  I am about to become a dad and I think that’s terribly exciting.

But today is not the day to list my endearing or not-so-endearing characteristics.  It is the day to welcome Pennsylvania’s new governor, Tom Corbett.  I just had the privilege of seeing Governor Corbett sworn in.  And as I think about his inaugural address, I am struck by what I find to be its only refrain.

That refrain is the concept of doing the right thing.  You can call me old fashioned if you want (I’m used to it) but I’m a big fan of that concept, and I’m encouraged that Gov. Corbett seems to be one, too.

He made this point very early in his address, promising “to do the right things, for the right reasons, even in the most challenging of times.”  And he came back to it near the end: “Our children’s grandchildren deserve our focused attention on doing only what is right to bring about this generational change.”

You might call these platitudes for a day of pomp and circumstance.  I’d call them countercultural and badly needed in a town full of ethical compromises.

The idea that there is a “right” thing is considered antiquated in today’s trendy intellectual circles.  And especially here in Harrisburg, doing what’s right has too often been an afterthought, not a starting point.  I heard this personally in the debate over the Union Pension Bailout Bill; more than one elected official confessed in my presence that he did not think it was the right approach but would support it anyway for political reasons.  If you really think this kind of logic through, it comes down to the following:  It’s nice to do what’s right if you can, but it’s essential to do what’s politically smart, even if you know it’s not right.

Gov. Corbett didn’t mention any particular bills today.  But he made a frontal assault on that line of thinking by promising to do what’s right even when it’s tough, and he chose wisely with the one specific issue he mentioned.  The Governor said “the best way to embrace innovation – the best way to make us competitive – is to make us competitive in education.”  And he went on to declare, “Our education system must contend with other nations and so we must embrace innovation, competition and choice in our education system.”

That’s an example of doing the right thing and not the politically smart thing.  The Governor could simply have said (as his predecessor did many times) that education is important and we should invest in it.  In principle, no one would disagree with that.  In practice, of course, that has meant lavishing taxpayer money upon our public schools, even as many of them they fail to do the job.  By specifically using the “C” word (choice) Governor Corbett signaled once again that he will be a different kind of leader.  He reminded us that he’s promised to do what’s right, namely to allow parents to free their kids from failing schools, even if those who have more political clout in Harrisburg than parents scream bloody murder.

On this cold, icy day, I’m raising my coffee cup to that old-fashioned idea of doing the right thing.  Cheers, Governor.  We at the Commonwealth Foundation are here to help you do as you’ve promised.