What Happened to GOP's Deep Bench of Governors?
Following the Republican losses in the 2012 election, a party-commissioned “autopsy” concluded that “Republican governors … point the way forward.” Governors, after all, are outside-the-Beltway problem-solvers, not Washington-based bloviators. The report boasted of the wonderful reforms already enacted by those governors, and four of them – Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal and John Kasich – eventually joined the presidential race.
Yet they have been out-outsidered by the three Republicans whose collective days in elective office add up to zero.
The most recent CNN poll of Iowa Republicans found that Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson are attracting 43 percent of the vote, while the four sitting governors scrape up 16 percent. If Trump’s embattled debate performance slowed his rise, the beneficiaries weren’t the governors, the Senate filibusterers or the elder statesmen. They were the other two novices.
Trump’s frontrunner status has been traced back to conservative outrage at the Republican establishment. As RedState’s Erick Erickson told the Atlantic, “The Republican Party created Donald Trump because they made a lot of promises to their base and never kept them … he’s burning down the Republican Party that never listened to them to begin with.”
A stronger gubernatorial candidate would have scratched the same anti-Washington itch, and possess the extra benefit of having a prayer in November 2016.
None materialized in the first Republican debate. Walker was humiliated when moderator Chris Wallace hung his failed campaign pledges around his neck: “When you ran for governor of Wisconsin back in 2010, you promised that you would create 250,000 jobs in your first term, first four years. In fact, Wisconsin added barely half that and ranked 35th in the country in job growth.” Walker’s limp response was that he “aimed high.”
Jindal, who couldn’t muster enough support to be invited to the main debate, was reminded during the “kids table” session that “your approval numbers at home are in the mid-30s at this point.” Christie did not receive a similar reminder, but he is well aware that his New Jersey numbers are worse.
Where did they go wrong? They prioritized policies designed to impress presidential primary voters instead of tending to the nuts and bolts of their states’ economies.
Walker’s attack on public-sector unions led to public sector job losses, and giving up federal funds for a high-speed rail project meant giving up the jobs that would have been created. Jindal turned a budget surplus into a deficit with the largest tax cut in the state’s history, creating what the Washington Post called “Louisiana’s worst budget crisis in 25 years.” Christie wrecked New Jersey’s credit rating thanks to a shoddy pension reform deal – meant to show conservatives he could crack down on unions – then refused to raise taxes to deal with shortfalls.
While the Republican base is far from offended by union-busting and tax-cutting, the weak economic and budgetary records deprive the governors of an indisputable record of accomplishment. But taking the long view and eschewing ideological crusades doesn’t do a Republican governor much good either.
Kasich avoided the pitfalls that swallowed his rivals. He dropped the fight against unions after voters scrapped his collective bargaining reforms. While he didn’t accept federal funds for high-speed rail, he did for Medicaid expansion. He balanced income tax cuts with sales tax hikes, prompting criticism from left and right but creating a budget surplus. He’s been rewarded with the best home-state approval rating of all the sitting governors.
And still, he’s knocked as insufficiently conservative by Republican primary voters and is mired near the bottom of the polls. Other Republican governors who executed their duties without perfect fealty to the far right, such as Nevada’s popular Brian Sandoval, weren’t even considered to be presidential material.
Being a governor in today’s Republican Party is essentially a lose-lose proposition. If, as the RNC autopsy portrayed its governors, you “campaigned and governed in a manner that is inclusive and appealing,” then you are dismissed as impure. If you pursue policies solely to provide red meat stump speech lines, you end up with an overall record unusable for the campaign trail. The end result is that Republican primary voters craving an outsider are left to choose between a real estate developer/reality TV star, an ex-CEO dumped by her board, and a neurosurgeon.
Erickson blames a party establishment that broke its promises -- what those promises were, I couldn’t tell you. Maybe the actual problem is a conservative media that fails to respect what successful governing looks like, making it impossible for voters to recognize it, leaving them vulnerable to the appeals of demagogues and hucksters.