GOP Governors to the Rescue!

Something we started hearing on Election Night and that’s now picking up steam as a “silver lining” for the GOP’s loss and/or as a source for the new, fresh thinking that will lift that party back to victory, is the Reforming Governor Meme. You know, it goes like this: congressional Republicans may be obstructionist ideologues who couldn’t run a popsicle stand, but ah, out there in America are Republican governors–pragmatic problem-solvers who know how to work across party lines to get things done! Here’s a vintage write-up of the Meme from Commentary‘s Seth Mandel:

Conservatives still reeling from the presidential election and the loss of some very winnable Senate seats can take comfort in a rather significant consolation prize: Republicans now control 30 governorships for the first time in more than a decade. The victory in North Carolina was particularly sweet for Republicans. But on a more fundamental level, the right has swamped the country with conservative reform-minded governors, and this success is not geographically constrained: such conservatives are at the helm in New Jersey, Wisconsin, Louisiana, New Mexico, and even Michigan.

In the last couple of years, out of power in the White House and stymied in Congress by Harry Reid-so enamored of grinding business to a halt that he’s refused to pass a budget for going on three years-conservative governors have led the charge.

Sounds good, as an abstraction. But when you start looking at some of these fine GOP governors, an awful lot of them make their colleagues in Washington look like reasonable and practical-minded folk. Is Rick Scott a “reformer” in any sense of the word? Is Nikki Haley a “problem-solver?” Have Scott Walker or John Kasich or Paul LePage reached out beyond the party’s ranks to get things done? Is Phil Bryant someone who inspires the hope in voters outside the GOP base that the party actually cares for them?

And how’s about those new ideas? Rick Perry’s big idea goes right back to the Gilded Era and even Reconstruction: give “business investors” absolutely whatever they want at the expense of public services and the community’s quality of life. One of Bobby Jindal’s fresh new ideas is to give public money to anyone who can talk parents into sending kids to their “schools,” even if they are basically evangelical conservative madrasas. Walker and Kasich and Haley are big proponents of the exciting new idea of making employees bargain individually with their employers. These “reformers” and Chris Christie have also come up with this exciting new thing called “defined contribution pensions,” whose great benefits they want everyone to share. Nearly all Republican governors have discovered the very-21st-century concept of “tort reform,” and understand we have to get over the old-think represented by such reactionary pieces of legislation as the Pure Food and Drug Act. All over the South, and even beyond it, Republican governors have embraced the new frontier of health care policy: letting poor, old and sick people accept responsibility for their own health care! Thank God conservative think tanks are feverishly churning out such innovative policies!

Enough. The point is that there’s not a great deal of evidence that Republican governors are terribly different than their friends in Washington, beyond what is necessary to win state elections and comply with the statutory requirements of their jobs. Some of them make Paul Ryan look like a paragon of open-mindedness. Moreover, this Reforming Governor Meme is a golden-oldie the GOP (and sometimes Democrats, too) pulls out of the tool box whenever the national party looks to be in trouble. You may recall the last time we heard it a lot (at least before Mitt Romney used it in the last few weeks of this presidential elections): in the late 1990s, after Newt Gingrich and company did such efficient work in ruining the GOP’s image. Remember what that batch of Reforming Republican Governors gave us? The candidacy and administration of George W. Bush, the “reformer with results.”

So beware the next raft of party or national saviors from the “laboratories of democracy.” Sometimes their “experiments” are as fresh as the mouldering memory of Calvin Coolidge.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.