GOP governors' success may not fly nationally

November 18, 1998|By Ronald Brownstein

LISTEN carefully to the keening in Republican ranks after this year's election, and you can hear a distinct echo of the Democratic lament during the party's darkest days of the 1980s.

After the massacre of 1984, when President Reagan won 49 states in a record-setting re-election, Democrats still controlled 34 governorships, three more than Republicans do now. As they picked through the wreckage, smart Democratic governors such Arizona's Bruce Babbitt (now the Interior secretary) all asked themselves the same question: Why are my party's national leaders sinking like lead in the same states where we're golden?

It's the identical question Republicans are asking today. With Republicans foundering in Washington but flourishing in the states, many GOP leaders are arguing that the best way to revive the party's fortunes is to adopt the model that's worked for the governors.

That's not bad advice. But it's easier said than done. Just like Democratic governors in the 1980s, Republican governors today are more successful than the national party leaders not so much because they are better politicians (though some are), but because they operate in an environment that allows them to more easily avoid extremes and broaden their bases of support. Governing from the center is easier in the states than in Washington because ideological interest groups generally aren't as powerful and the media and legislative culture discourage the parties from polarizing every dispute as fanatically as they do in Congress. Applying state lessons to national politics isn't impossible, but, given those differences in climate, it isn't easy or painless either.

Successful moderates

That's the real message of the Democratic experience. The answer to Mr. Babbitt's question turned out to be straightforward. Democratic governors could thrive in states where Democrats were buried in presidential elections because the governors could take popular centrist positions that the national party could not or would not. While national Democratic leaders were frozen in liberal orthodoxy -- and afraid to challenge the party interest groups that defended it -- such governors as Mr. Babbitt and Arkansas' Bill Clinton were enforcing the death penalty, reforming education and restraining spending.

Eventually, Mr. Clinton brought that perspective to the national ticket in 1992. But he succeeded only after his party's resistance to change had been softened by three consecutive electoral college wipeouts in the 1980s.

Today, the ideological distance between Republican governors and the Republican Congress probably isn't as wide as the gulf among Democrats in the 1980s. It's an oversimplification to divide the GOP into congressional conservatives and gubernatorial moderates: while some Republican governors (such as New York's George Pataki) are legitimate moderates, by any reasonable definition most of them (from Texas' George W. Bush to Wisconsin's Tommy G. Thompson) would qualify as conservatives.

Yet compared with the GOP in Congress, the governors have pursued a more pragmatic and flexible conservatism and are more willing to deviate from party dogma, compromise with Democrats and sublimate polarizing social issues.

Still, many of the approaches that work for the GOP governors won't be easy to replicate on the national level. In at least three key areas, the governors offer a direction that could expand the GOP's national appeal -- but would also spark intense ideological resistance. Consider:

Spending. As a general rule, the Republican governors have been tightfisted. But they've responded to the recent prosperity much as Mr. Clinton has: balancing tax cuts with significant spending increases, particularly for education. "If a Ronald Reagan lower-tax agenda got these governors elected in the first place, most are now gambling that parroting Bill Clinton will keep them in office," writes Stephen Moore, fiscal policy director at the libertarian Cato Institute.

In fact, that balanced approach has helped Republican governors broaden their appeal. But when the GOP Congress accepted a similar spending deal with Mr. Clinton (in the 1997 bill to balance the federal budget), the right erupted in revolt.

For Congress to follow the governors' model, it would have to stare down conservatives who bristle at almost any spending increase.

Education. Whether or not they support private school vouchers, Republican governors, including Mr. Bush and California's Pete Wilson, have anchored their administrations on public education reforms. Yet Republican orthodoxy allows almost no role for the federal government in reinvigorating public education. Following the governors would mean challenging that consensus.

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