Set Aside

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JANUARY 14, 2002

Set Aside

Here's a name you probably haven't heard in a while: Christie Todd
Whitman. She's head of the Environmental Protection Agency,
remember? In her first few months in office Whitman revealed
herself on several occasions to be out of the policy loop--the
worst sort of ignominy in Washington--and has since gracefully
disappeared from sight. Tom Ridge's fate has been less kind. One
year ago he was a wildly popular governor lauded for his pragmatic
leadership and was mentioned prominently as a vice presidential
candidate. Today he is a cabinet officer without authority,
consigned to serve up blather to a mildly contemptuous press corps.
More pitiful still is Tommy Thompson. He was once revered by left
and right for his innovations in welfare and health care (and a
veep mentionee himself); pundits considered it beneath his standing
to accept so undemanding a consolation prize as the Department of
Health and Human Services. And since the anthrax scare, his
standing has sunk so low that New York Times eminence R.W. Apple
recently dismissed him as "a bumbler, lacking in the aura of
command that makes the politicians and other people here pay
attention."Whitman, Ridge, and Thompson have something in common besides their
painful experiences in the Bush cabinet: They're former governors.
Not long ago, you may recall, governors were the luminaries of the
Republican Party. "Governors are role models," crowed Thompson
three years ago. "You have a group of individuals who really should
be the soul and heart of the party." Governors, gushed The
Washington Post in 1998, "have found a formula that has escaped
others in their party: They have learned how to be conservative and
pro- government at the same time." The Times editorialized, "From
Gov. George Bush in Texas to Gov. George Pataki in New York, these
Republicans rejected the `government is the problem' mantra of old.
They embraced the use of public resources for children's health,
schools, the environment, and job placement for the poor." The
contrast between the successful governors and the unsuccessful
Gingrichites in Congress served as fodder for the mainstream
media's favorite kind of morality tale: Ideological stubbornness
brings defeat, while moderate pragmatism brings victory.

The supergovernor idea became integral to George W. Bush's campaign.
Governors circulated the tale that his candidacy was born when his
colleagues at a National Governors Association meeting decided that
one of their own should receive the GOP nomination. In the final
weeks of the campaign, Bush barnstormed with his fellow governors,
promising to bring their winning formula to Washington. After he
took office it was widely assumed that governors would provide the
talent and philosophical inspiration for his administration.

And Bush has enjoyed plenty of success as president--but not because
he has imported a team of pragmatic, can-do state executives to run
his administration. Rather, he has followed roughly the same path
as the GOP's much-maligned congressional wing: using rigid party
discipline to muscle through traditional conservative priorities.
Even before September 11 the stream of national reporters decamping
to the hinterlands to genuflect before the governors had slowed to
a trickle. In fact, the myth of the moderate Republican
supergovernor has quietly faded away without anybody consciously
recognizing its untruth.

The pundits had it right in connecting the governors' popularity
with their middle-of-the-road policies. But what allowed them to
appear simultaneously conservative and pro-government--and what
distinguished them from the congressional GOP--wasn't ideological;
it was institutional. For one thing, the element of governance that
conservatives find most abhorrent is redistribution of wealth from
rich to poor, and states, unlike the federal government, do very
little of this. States raise more of their revenue from regressive
sales taxes, and their income taxes are less steeply progressive
than those paid to the Treasury. So the same Republicans who detest
government at the national level can make peace with it at the
state level.

The more important reason is that, starting in the mid-1990s,
governors enjoyed huge budget surpluses while Congress faced huge
deficits. Why did the states make out better? Because they devoted
a far bigger chunk of their budgets to Medicaid--which, due to
shrinking welfare rolls and plunging health care inflation, got
much cheaper. Also, Congress, unlike the governors, was still
saddled with leftover red ink from the 1980s. As a result, when
Republicans took over Congress in 1995, they couldn't cut taxes
without disastrously slashing popular spending--leaving them wide
open to President Clinton's counterpunches in defense of "Medicare,
Medicaid, education, and the environment."

Republican governors, on the other hand, could cut taxes and still
boost spending. Democratic governors practiced the same free-lunch
politics, of course. But since the 1994 elections had given the
Republicans control of most state capitals, this brand of
governance came to be associated with the GOP. As the Post
reported, "Republican governors are mixing education initiatives
and child health programs with more traditionally conservative
anti-crime and welfare reform measures, plus a healthy dose of tax
cuts, to produce what in many states appears to be a uniquely
palatable political diet." In other words, they were giving
middle-class voters everything they wanted without demanding any
hard choices. The press dubbed it a new political philosophy, when
in fact it was a very, very old one.

The obvious flaw in this style of governance was that it depended on
an everlasting economic boom. A few nags pointed this out at the
time. Moderate and liberal think tanks issued reports urging states
to set aside more of their surpluses for "rainy-day funds." But
governors and their legislatures, giddy with surplus cash,
preferred to keep the party going. Now, inevitably, the day of
reckoning has arrived. Almost every state, including those recently
presided over by supergovernors, is now suffering severe budget
shortfalls. Now the governors must undertake the less pleasant task
of imposing austerity measures to balance their budgets. Executives
in almost every state are scrambling to undo the tax cuts and
spending boosts they had promised voters. Among other things, this
makes for colossally stupid economics. Even as President Bush and
Congress contemplate a "stimulus bill" to pump money into the
economy, states are preparing to take some $50 billion out of the
economy through tax hikes and budget cuts.

Suddenly, gubernatorial genius is in short supply. In Minnesota, for
instance, Jesse Ventura faces sliding poll numbers and a series of
controversies for berating the press and ignoring state business to
film a cameo role in a movie. Ventura, of course, has always had a
taste for bizarre self-indulgence and media-bashing. But in the
past, when he was cutting taxes and funding new programs, these
traits were considered charming. Now, as he proposes to boost
taxes, they're seen as reckless.

Or consider Ohio's Bob Taft. His first year in office, 1999,
"couldn't have been better," reported the Columbus Dispatch. Taft
cut taxes and boosted education spending, earning praise from
Cleveland's The Plain Dealer as "a good governor" with "the
potential to be an outstanding one." This year, though, Taft has to
dig the budget out of a hole, and everything has changed. "Some GOP
legislators," reported The Plain Dealer last spring, "are saying out
loud what others have been whispering for months: Gov. Bob Taft is
a weak leader." Perhaps he is a weak leader, but it's probably
nothing a couple billion dollars couldn't solve.

What appears on the surface to be a huge, sudden drop in the
aggregate intelligence of our nation's governors is--as a Marxist
might claim--a function of a deeper economic superstructure. It
should come as no surprise that Bush appointees who made their
reputations as governors during the '90s suddenly find themselves
humbled and irrelevant. Something similar would probably be
happening if they had kept their old jobs. The governors haven't
gotten dumb all at once. They were never as smart as they seemed in
the first place.

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