It’s a good bet, then, that the 2008 presidential race will include more than a few governors. In fact, with no president and, in all likelihood, no vice president on the ticket–the first time that’s happened in modern history–the campaign could be so crowded with statehouse chief executives it’ll look like a meeting of the National Governors Association. The Republican primary might include Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, George Pataki, and even (given a little constitutional rejiggering) Arnold Schwarzenegger. On the Democratic side, Bill Richardson, Ed Rendell, Mark Warner, Phil Bredesen, Kathleen Sebelius, and Tom Vilsack are just some of the governors who could jump into the race.
In such a crowded field, it’ll be more important than ever for a would-be president to have a standout record of achievements–especially programs addressing the big national issues that will likely define the 2008 race. To that end, we’ve scoured the states to assemble our Top 10 List of good ideas that any Democratic (or enlightened Republican) governor could implement to build a White House-worthy rsum.
Problem: Questions of war and peace might not dominate the 2008 elections to quite the extent they did in 2004. But any presidential candidate who completely lacks national security experience will face a major credibility gap with voters. That’s the big disadvantage of running as a governor: Defending the country just isn’t in their job description. The one exception is that governors oversee National Guard units, the area of the military that is having the hardest time recruiting new members now that extended tours of duty are part of the job. Grueling deployments aren’t the only troubles Guard members face today. Upon coming home, 20 percent of them lack health-care coverage because their military health benefits end when their tours of duty are over. That’s a lousy way to treat our troops. And with enlistment and reenlistment rates plummeting, it’s also a national security risk.
Solution: Let guardsmen and their families buy into state employee health-care systems that provide discounted coverage.
Where it’s been tried: Nowhere yet, though health experts see no major reason why it couldn’t be done.
Campaign sound bite: Guard members face the same dangers as full-time soldiers; they deserve full-time healthcare.
Possible downside: Some members of the Guard will still not be able to afford the coverage absent significant state subsidies, and rising health-care costs are already straining state budgets.
Problem: The majority of voters support abortion rights in some form. Yet pro-choice politicians have been knocked around on the abortion issue ever since the words “partial-birth” entered the political lexicon. They fight campaigns with their backs against the ropes, offering the single defense of “choice” against countless attacks over which abortion procedures they support, why parents shouldn’t be notified when their teenagers seek abortions, and whether they believe fetuses can feel pain. A smart pro-choice governor needs a way to escape this defensive crouch while acknowledging the moral qualms that even many pro-choice voters have about abortion.
Solution: Change the debate from abortion rights to abortion prevention by sponsoring programs that reduce the number of abortions performed. The most effective way to prevent unwanted pregnancies, and hence abortions, is to increase the use of birth control. But contraception for women can be expensive, and unlike Viagra–which is subsidized by most insurance companies–coverage of birth control is arbitrary, subject to the whims of insurance companies and state Medicaid programs. California addressed this problem by expanding access to contraception through Medicaid waivers and by encouraging private insurance companies to cover birth control. In the first year of California’s expanded program, more than 100,000 unintended pregnancies were prevented, avoiding 41,000 abortions and saving the state nearly $400 million.
Where it’s been tried: California, Washington, among other states.
Campaign sound bite: In my state, we cut the number of abortions without undercutting a woman’s right to choose.
Possible downside: Birth control is still a no-no for some Catholics.
Problem: No doubt about it. George W. Bush and the GOP have elevated the once-obscure issue of “tort reform” to near-center stage. They’ve been helped by the fact that medical malpractice rates really are at record highs, and doctors are understandably apoplectic. But they have fingered the wrong villain. The real cause of high malpractice insurance rates hasn’t been runaway juries (jury awards have actually declined over the last 30 years), but the industry’s habit of hiking rates each time the economy fumbles and investment returns slide. Instead of taking money away from the most victimized patients by capping damage awards (the Republican go-to solution), a tough governor should take on the insurance industry.
Solution: Crack down on insurance companies that rip off physicians and, by extension, patients. In most states, the insurance commissioner is appointed by the governor and is often an industry-friendly sort. But there’s nothing preventing a governor from picking an Eliot Spitzer-like figure instead (as in Washington State, where Commissioner Mike Kreidler has taken on insurance companies) or championing caps on insurance rates. The model for freezing malpractice insurance is in California, where voters approved an initiative that resulted in a rate freeze, a rate rollback, and regulation that reduced medical malpractice premiums. During the first three years of reform, premiums dropped more than 20 percent, and three of the state’s largest medical malpractice insurance companies returned more than $69 million directly to physicians. The result? Happy doctors, happy patients, and lower costs all around.
Where it’s been tried: California, Washington.
Campaign sound bite: Let insurance companies sit in the waiting room for once. It’s time to put doctors and patients first.
Possible downside: Powerful insurance companies might defeat this idea in a state less reform-minded than California.
Problem: Education is still near the top of most voters’ priorities, but right now, neither party has a natural advantage on the issue. Democrats haven’t come up with any new ideas in a while and have fallen back on their image as big-spenders who throw money at schools. Republicans originally benefited from the president’s No Child Left Behind reforms. But their image has been tarnished by flaws in the testing law and by the GOP’s failure to provide enough funds to make the law’s reforms work. Governors are in a tough position; they can’t change No Child Left Behind, and they can’t unilaterally come up with enough money to radically reshape their states’ educational systems.
Solution: Concentrate on doing a superior job of fulfilling the most important responsibility No Child Left Behind places on states: turning around failing schools. Under strong gubernatorial leadership, a few state education departments have recruited teams of first-rate teachers, administrators, counselors, and testing specialists to swoop in and take over schools (mostly in impoverished neighborhoods) whose students consistently perform at the bottom on state tests. These turn-around teams have managed to lift the performance of the vast majority of targeted schools, in some cases dramatically.
Where it’s been tried: North Carolina, Kentucky.
Campaign sound bite: I turned around more failing schools in four years than any other governor in America.
Possible downside: Do voters care about poor kids’ schools or their kids’ schools?
Problem: Pundits were abuzz about “moral values” after the election, declaring that the GOP’s positions on gay marriage and abortion won them the support of culturally-concerned swing voters. But most Americans don’t go home at night and worry about gay marriage–they have more practical concerns such as the environment in which their children are growing up. Parents feel they have little control over the influences to which their kids are exposed, including movies, music, and video games. While violent and sexually explicit video games carry warning labels, in most states, kids can buy and rent these games without parental approval.
Solution: Limit teen access to violent and explicit video games by requiring parental approval for purchase or rental.
Where it’s been tried: Washington state passed such a law; Illinois is debating one.
Campaign sound bite: Parents, not the entertainment industry, ought to be able to control what video games their children play.
Possible downside: Might not pass constitutional muster.
Problem: Even in these politicized times, most voters still congregate around the moderate middle. They hate the way the political system polarizes issues to the point where little constructive work gets done. And they don’t appreciate it when politicians bend or rewrite the rules of governing to garner greater partisan advantage–something increasingly common in GOP-controlled Washington these days.
A major manifestation–and source–of the problem is the way lawmakers, with the aid of computerized voter-mapping software and permissive readings of electoral law, gerrymander congressional and legislative districts, creating awkward borders that seem drawn by Picasso. The result is that most elected representatives today occupy safe seats and don’t need to reach out to swing voters or be seen as working with members of the other party. In fact, quite the opposite is true: To the extent that they’re vulnerable at all, it’s to primary challengers from their own party who are more ideologically extreme than they are. Thus, year after year, politics in America becomes more vicious, uncompromising, and undemocratic.
Solution: Take away from politicians and parties the corrupting power to draw legislative districts and give it to independent redistricting commissions. In states that have done so, commissions have redrawn lines using reasonable, nonpartisan guidelines like compactness, contiguity, and respect for existing city and other geographic boundaries. As a result, the majority of state and congressional seats in those states are competitive again, giving a fighting chance to moderates in both parties.
Where it’s been tried: Arizona, Washington, Iowa.
Campaign sound bite: Let’s make politics more like football: straight lines, fair rules, and a level playing field.
Possible downside: The other party could accuse the governor of trying to rewrite the rules of redistricting for his own party’s advantage.
Problem: When it comes to supporting charitable organizations, Americans are not divided. More than three-quarters like the idea of strengthening community organizations–both religious and secular–that provide social services to those in need. Unfortunately, while the Bush administration’s faith-based initiative has expanded the ability of these groups to apply for government grants, it has slashed the amount of funds available, reducing the overall amount of money that goes to social service organizations of any type. And the president punted on the part of his “compassionate conservative” agenda that would have done the most to increase private giving: a federal tax deduction for non-itemizers (i.e. most citizens) who make charitable donations. Currently, those who don’t itemize get no federal tax breaks for such donations. That simple change would have resulted in an estimated $80 billion in extra donations to private charities. Instead, Bush shoved that promised reform aside in favor of such provisions as eliminating the estate tax.
Solution: Give non-itemizers a state tax deduction for their charitable contributions. Also, provide incentives for businesses to increase their donations to charities, and encourage farmers and other food manufacturers to donate surplus food by letting them write off those contributions.
Where it’s been tried: Colorado, Minnesota.
Campaign sound bite: Empowering citizens to help each other.
Possible downside: Costs money upfront in the form of tax deductions.
The time crunch
Problem: Arguably the biggest unmet need in America is for adjustments to compensate for one of the greatest demographic changes in the last 30 years: the rise of women in the workforce. Though the shift has brought huge economic and personal benefits to men and women alike, it’s also meant that parents have less time to be with their families and less control over the time they do have. The anxiety parents feel is most keen when a child is born, an elderly parent falls ill, or a family member winds up in the hospital. Suddenly, the tight routines of daily life are thrown into disarray, and at least one parent has to take time off from work. The Family and Medical Leave Act, which Bill Clinton signed into law in 1993, allows working parents to take unpaid leave of up to 12 weeks to care for a newborn or sick family member. But families exercise that right at the steep price of losing income they otherwise would have earned. Millions of parents can’t afford the income hit and end up trapped at their jobs during a time of family crisis.
Solution: Create a statewide, paid-family-leave insurance program run through the unemployment compensation system. Employees who agree to a small payroll deduction can take time off for family emergencies and collect 50 percent of their salaries.
Where it’s been tried: Legislation is pending in Washington.
Campaign sound bite: Working parents shouldn’t have to choose between doing their jobs and doing right by their families.
Possible downside: Another employer mandate, hence anathema to business groups.
Problem: As David Brooks reminds everyone at least once a month, the new American migration is out to the exurbs, and the key to winning elections lies in attracting the support of these new exurban homeowners. These voters tend to be fiscally and socially conservative–and have unsurprisingly sided with Republicans over the last few election cycles. Sometimes, however, concerns close to home matter more to exurbanites than capital gains tax cuts and gay marriage bans. In the last decade, millions of Americans have found that their exurban dream homes–typically built by profit-hungry and largely-unregulated developers–are appallingly shoddy. Even new luxury McMansions have crumbling foundations and shingles that disintegrate after just a few years.
Solution: Enact a House Lemon Law that holds builders responsible for their mistakes and ensures that middle-class families don’t spend $300,000 to live in the equivalent of a Pinto.
Where it’s been tried: Texas, where a house lemon bill is stuck in the legislature.
Campaign sound bite: If you’re living in it, your builder should stand behind it.
Possible downside: Tough getting such a bill through legislatures run by politicians who receive contributions from the homebuilding sector.
Problem: Environmentalism has become one of the hottest cultural flashpoints in the battle between red and blue America. Metropolitan liberals believe, with almost religious fervor, that wildlife should be protected and land preserved. Rural and small-town conservatives believe, with equal passion, that environmentalists are elitists who want to separate people from nature and guns from their owners. Yet despite their philosophical and lifestyle differences, both groups value open space, and both are having a harder and harder time getting access to it. National and state parks have become gridlocked with visitors during peak season. And with developers turning rural land into parking lots, access to good trout streams and hunting woods on private land is declining rapidly.
Solution: Offer private landowners–many of them struggling farmers and ranchers–an annual fee in exchange for allowing others to hunt, fish, boat, bird watch, or picnic on their property. The money would come from small increases in fees for state hunting and fishing licenses and landfill “tipping fees.” Landowners’ participation is voluntary and renewable annually.
Where it’s been tried: North and South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, among others.
Campaign sound bite: More land for hunters and hikers, more water for boaters and fisherman.
Possible downside: Sierra Club members might shudder to find common cause with deer-hunting associations.