Nathan Deal's well-controlled terrain becomes slippery

Within a 36-hour window this week, Nathan Deal tasted the sweet advantages of an incumbent governor running for re-election – and the job’s bitterly cold liabilities as well.

With the wave of a pen, a few conversations and $100 million or so in reserves, Deal on Monday abetted the escape of thousands of public school teachers from the added expenses of a new health care plan – which he himself had approved last year.

Problem solved. Democratic talking point averted.

Helping those same teachers, and tens of thousands of their students, escape their classrooms on Tuesday afternoon, after a well-advertised storm dropped two inches of snow?

That was another matter entirely.

“We can never promise that we will always be correct when it comes to deciding what Mother Nature is going to do. She truly does have a mind of her own,” Deal said in an extraordinary press conference on Wednesday.

And then – after telling reporters that he and his team had been misled by the National Weather Service – the governor apologized to any voters who thought he had dropped the ball on Snowjam ’14.

More than any other figure in state politics, incumbent governors control the terrain they run on. This is why state Sen. Jason Carter, D-Atlanta, faces longer odds in his challenge to Deal than Michelle Nunn, the Democrat running for an open U.S. Senate seat.

Last year, health care experts said hospitals, particularly in rural Georgia, might close because of the governor’s refusal to expand the state’s Medicaid program – now an optional feature of the Affordable Care Act. In the last few weeks, Deal has defused the issue by quietly letting it be known that he would help those vulnerable hospitals bridge any financial gaps.

Early this year, a Cherokee County mom – the wife of a high school science teacher – started a Facebook page to rally opposition to a new state employee health insurance plan that hiked co-pays to unaffordable heights, under a single provider.

Ashley Cline’s Facebook page quickly attracted more than 11,000 supporters. In the Capitol, the movement was first dismissed as an artificial grassroots effort funded by the losing insurance company. Then fingers were pointed at Obamacare. Finally, Deal produced his $100 million solution.

“The response just changed overnight one day. I’m not sure why,” Cline said Tuesday, comfy and safe in her Canton home. Snowflakes were falling, and the governor’s well-controlled terrain was already becoming impassable.

From Chinese emperors and floods to U.S. presidents and hurricanes, weather has been a most troublesome force in politics. Perhaps because, during such disasters, leaders are held hostage by the vast bureaucracies they oversee.

At his Snowjam press conference on Wednesday, Deal portrayed the snowstorm as an event whose impact was thought to be modest until 30 lightning-quick minutes in the 12 o’clock hour on Tuesday revealed its truly paralyzing nature.

But if that was the case, a reporter asked, why was the operations center for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency still closed when she stopped by after 3 p.m.?

Charley English, GEMA’s director, was summoned to the mike. “At two and three o’clock yesterday, it still had not gotten terrible on the roads,” he said.

It is not profitable for governors to be seen as having an arm’s length relationship with reality – not with so many witnesses still trapped on metro Atlanta roads. Right there in front of a hungry scrum of reporters, Deal contradicted his agency chief.

“I was on the roads about that point in time, and it was getting to be gridlocked. The interstates were already experiencing major difficulties. Side roads that people were taking to get off were experiencing difficulties,” Deal said. “So we all have some lessons we need to learn here.”

Behind Deal stood Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who in many ways acted as the governor’s attorney – offering a better defense of his client than the governor himself.

But Reed disagreed with the governor on one point. To show that he understood the threat of Snowjam ’14 very early, the governor had noted that he gave state workers permission to leave at 10 a.m. Tuesday.

In the future, the mayor of Atlanta said he would call for the staggered depopulation of his city – first schoolchildren, then business employees, and lastly, government workers.

Reed’s was arguably a cosmetic improvement. If school children are sent home early when storms threaten, someone must be at home to receive them. And business people and governmental staffers have been known to spawn in mighty numbers.

But the mayor just finished his re-election bid, and has nothing to worry about.

We are scheduled to reach 40 degrees on Thursday. The snow will melt. For Deal, the question is whether the memories of Snowjam ‘14 will thaw by November. Or May, if you’re convinced his Republican primary challengers have a chance.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.