More Problems For Those Bold, Reforming Governors

One of the most durable themes of U.S. political media coverage is that of the “bold, reforming Governors,” as contrasted with the bloviators in Washington. David Broder used to work it pretty much every time he attended a National Governors’ Association meeting. You know the riff: while partisan warriors agitate the air in the Capitol, out there in America, governors are solving real problems and getting things done without regard to party of ideology.

As someone who worked for three governors back in Georgia, I’m very sympathetic to the theme. State governors and their executives do in fact have to face the realities of government on the ground, close to their real-lifeimpact on real people, and can only get so far with rhetorical gestures and red-meat-for-the-base posturing. But that general principle should not serve as a substitute for actual analysis of what governors are actually doing. And this is a particularly important point with respect to Republican governors, since they are forever being touted as the “answer” to the political problems of the national Republican Party. This was a wildly popular meme in the late 1990s, when the Gingrich Congress was playing the fool on a daily basis, even as Republican governors benefitting from a national economic boom were happily cutting taxes and boosting spending and in general enjoying the good life. So what did we get in 2000? President George W. Bush, the “reformer with results.”

Coming out of the 2012 elections–in which, lest we forget, a former governor went down to defeat on the Elephant Ticket)–the “bold, reforming Republican governors” talk went into hyperdrive (as I predicted on November 9, BTW). Bobby Jindal was going to save the party from being “stupid!” Rick Perry was showing how to create jobs! Bob McDonnell was the kind of leader swing voters really wanted! Chris Christie was–well, Chris Christie clearly had some fence-mending to do with conservatives, but he was cruising to re-election in a blue state! Even grim ideologues like Scott Walker and John Kasich, or dim hacks like Nikki Haley, were basking in the glow of presumed gubernatorial virtue and competence.

Just a few months later, things are looking a little different. The early 2016 GOP presidential field is dominated by senatorial (or in the case of Rick Santorum, former senatorial) bloviators. And as Charles Babington and Bob Lewis of AP document in a story yesterday, all those shining gubernatorial lights are struggling with what they call “local setbacks:”

Republican governors are often seen as innovative policymakers and potential presidential candidates, but a few are struggling with political or ethical problems that might crimp their ambitions.

Two governors eyeing possible White House bids — Bob McDonnell of Virginia and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana — suddenly find themselves fending off critics and trying to shore up legacies they hope will withstand national scrutiny. Other high-profile governors run the gamut from maintaining solid popularity to being in danger of losing re-election next year….

McDonnell, who built an image as a competent problem-solver, confronted questions Tuesday about an FBI inquiry into gifts he accepted from a wealthy Virginia businessman. And Jindal, even in a Republican-dominated state, had to pull back his ambitious plan to replace Louisiana’s corporate and personal income taxes with higher sales taxes. His popularity has sagged lately….

McDonnell’s and Jindal’s struggles — combined with those of Republican governors in Pennsylvania, Florida, South Carolina and elsewhere — prove that governorships can be far from ideal incubators of political ideas and national ambitions.

Yeah, you could say that. But there’s a broader lesson here: far from being “pragmatic problem-solvers,” many Republican governors–who, after all, have to rely on the same electoral “base” as the right-wing bloviators of Washington–are themselves ideological warriors whose ambitions for higher office or national fame are quite logically rooted in efforts to turn their states into experiment-stations for the fine fruits of right-wing DC think tanks.

In most cases, it’s not working out that well, as noted in an important Wall Street Journal piece late yesterday by Mark Peters and Neil King, who write about the collision with reality being experienced by gubernatorial “tax reformers:”

Republican lawmakers in several states are blunting plans by GOP governors to reduce or eliminate income taxes, putting the legislators at odds with figures many in the party see as leading voices on reshaping government.

Friction over tax policy within the GOP has flared in states such as Louisiana, Nebraska, Kansas and Ohio, as Republican lawmakers raise concerns over projected revenue losses from income-tax cuts. Three of those states shelved big income-tax cuts that would be paid for by broadening the sales tax, and in Kansas, legislators will return next week to a continuing debate over the size and speed of proposed cuts.

Last week, the Indiana legislature passed a plan giving Gov. Mike Pence an income-tax cut that was smaller and phased in over a longer period than his original proposal. Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin agreed to an income-tax-cut deal with Republican lawmakers, but they postponed it until 2015 over revenue concerns. North Carolina lawmakers have been discussing a tax overhaul for months but haven’t come up with a plan.

It’s telling that the bold tax plans of these bold, reforming GOP governors are in most cases being thwarted by Republican legislators who, whatever their generic shortcomings, know some simple math and don’t really want to sacrifice their states to the desire of their chief executive to get mentioned in 2016 articles or hobnob with the “job creators” eager to be relieved of state tax burdens.

The bottom line is that the ideological fever of the conservative movement and the GOP isn’t confined to Washington, and can’t be banished or even obscured by celebrating “problem-solvers” who are mainly interested in solving the problem of their own relationships with wealthy right-wing donors and savage conservative activists. There’s nothing about living in Baton Rouge or Columbia or Madison or Austin or Harrisburg that inoculates pols against this fever, particularly when the victim aspires to move to Washington, DC, via the enthusiasm of Tea Folk in Iowa or South Carolina. Perhaps we can enjoy a brief respite in the gubernatorial hype, please?

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.