Political Animal


May 02, 2013 11:44 AM More Problems For Those Bold, Reforming Governors

By Ed Kilgore

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 is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Peter C on May 02, 2013 12:02 PM:

    They are only looking to governors because Republican Congressmen are so unpopular.

  • c u n d gulag on May 02, 2013 12:10 PM:

    Most of these Governors rode in on the post-2008, off-year, Teabagger dominated, elections, and believed their parties own hype.

    I was worried then, and I'm still worried now, but less so.

    The fact of the matter is, the only thing Republican Governors and state legislatures have, is their same goal of continuing to to shift the tax burdon away from the rich and corporations, and more onto the lower and middle classes, and are running out of creative BS ways to market cutting off your nose to spite your face seem like something worth doing to the classes that will be most affected, and it seems like more and more people are starting to finally look like they're maybe catching on.
    (And yeah, I know that's a lot of qualifiers in that last part).

    At the very least, people are seeing that continuing to increase local and sales taxes, will affect them the most, since at the same time, their politicians are looking to cut their state's corporate taxes, and taxes on the wealthy.

  • xaxnar on May 02, 2013 12:29 PM:

    Let's not overlook an important component in the ideological fervor of the Republican Governors: big money, corporate clout. The Koch Brothers and ALEC have been making great strides under the radar because most political coverage of states is on a local news basis; bigger national trends and dot- connecting doesn't get done. It's also a lot cheaper for big money to buy state governments. Crazy stuff is happening out there.

    Scott Walker's Wisconsin is pretty much a corporate-owned entity these days. Tom Corbett in PA may turn out to be a one term wonder. Charles P. Pierce does a great job over at Esquire covering "the laboratories of democracy" on a regular basis. They demonstrate that big money + ideology + stupid is not pretty in action.

  • Mimikatz on May 02, 2013 1:21 PM:

    These selfish, Scrooge-like pols who serve the very rich and the delusional base can't get elected if Dems get a fair chance to vote and if they turn out. It is that simple. Fight vote suppression, help get out the vote, and talk up midterm voting. And help get good Dem candidates. That will beat big money and bad candidates every time. See 2012. But without that we are screwed.

  • mmm on May 02, 2013 2:00 PM:

    These political puppets deserve what they get. The only Governor I can think of who has enough gumption to tell a few in his party to stick it, is Christie, and he gets nothing but snubs from his party. If the Dems can't take advantage of this mess, they aren't even trying.

  • Daryl McCullough on May 02, 2013 2:12 PM:

    Did you work for Zell Miller? There is no bigger disappointment to me than Zell's selling out the Democratic Party toward the end of his Senate career.

  • Anonymous on May 02, 2013 2:56 PM:

    also should point out that those republican governors have done well because they used federal stimulus money in 09 to 10 to reform education and balance the budgets working with obama as well as other tasks like working with FEMA.

    maybe it isn't so much about state governments intrinsically better than national government but being moderate and programatic is better than being partisan, huh?

    there are also of course other economic variables like texas being natural resource rich or virginia having so many federal workers/contractors being close to washington.
    i think for example it was unfair for mitt romney, ex MA governor to blame rick perry's personal political skills for "failure" of having illegal immigrants if you think about Texas's geographic closeness to Mexico.

    they talk a lot about cutting taxes but washington state also has no income tax just like texas and no one really credit democrats for that. i so think the media is prone to a nice balance narrative of "republicans are bad nationally but strong locally while democrats are strong nationally but weak locally". the truth is a lot more complicated than just party politics.

  • PTate in MN on May 02, 2013 3:33 PM:

    Former MN governor, Republican Tim "no new taxes" Pawlenty, was a leader of this pack. Today, a governor implementing a hard right wing agenda in MN, much despised by his constituents; tomorrow one of the losing candidate for the Republican nomination for POTUS.

    The only reason the Media pays any attention to these governors is because the media keep pretending that there are principled conservatives out there; the Koch brothers and the Tea Party ideologues are just a side story, not The Story. If you refuse to accept that the leadership of one of our two major political parties is bought and sold or bats**t crazy, then you start to look for someone, anyone, to sustain your delusion.