The Peril of Faith

Politics and policy.
April 3 1999 3:30 AM

The Peril of Faith

Should we believe in the Republican governors?

22000_22974_kuper_elephant1

For years it has been an American article of faith--as cherished as our belief in free enterprise--that politicians are corrupt, venal, and incompetent: This was established by Watergate, left unshaken by Jimmy Carter, and reinforced by Iran-Contra. Impeachment was supposed to affirm it once and for all. But now the unthinkable has happened: Americans have regained their faith in politicians.

Advertisement

Fully 60 percent of Americans now trust the federal government to handle domestic problems, and more than 70 percent trust the feds on foreign policy. President Clinton's job approval ratings remain near record levels.

Nowhere is this Great Awakening more alarming than in governors' offices. A March Washington Post poll pegs job approval ratings for governors nationwide at 73 percent, up from 49 percent in 1991. Republican governors are especially favored. While Republicans in Congress struggled in the 1998 elections, most Republican governors routed Democrats by record margins. Some Republican govs, such as George W. Bush of Texas, now score approval ratings above 80 percent.

This faith in Republican governors has two consequences for the GOP. The first relates to the 2000 presidential campaign. Desperate for a hot candidate, the GOP has--as Lamar Alexander jokes--all but carved Bush's image onto Mount Rushmore already. And the happy numbers have made any Republican who lives in a governor's mansion think he deserves a promotion to vice president. Among those touted as potential Bush running mates are New York's George Pataki, Wisconsin's Tommy Thompson, Pennsylvania's Tom Ridge, Michigan's John Engler, Massachusetts' Paul Cellucci, Kansas' Bill Graves, New Jersey's Christine Todd Whitman, Utah's Mike Leavitt, and Montana's Marc Racicot.

The second consequence of the govs' popularity is that it is persuading Republicans that the governors have found the Holy Grail. The governors, Republicans believe, have invented a brilliant new politics that transcends ideology. The admirers of the governors (who include, not least, the governors themselves) use the same phrases over and over to describe them: The govs are a "third party" and a "new breed." They have "a distinct approach" and "a new way of governing."

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

What is this magical new way? They combine fiscal conservatism and softer social policy. They have turned deficits into gigantic surpluses while still cutting taxes. They have slashed welfare rolls and unemployment. They have increased funding for popular social policies: teacher training, health care for kids, environmental cleanups. George W. wants to spend $1 billion more on teacher salaries and an extra $116.5 million on child care for the poor. Pataki just boosted education spending by $600 million.

Unlike the savage congressional Republicans, the governors have perfected the soothing language of politics. Bush, for example, has abjured "English-only" education: He calls his program "English-plus." "English-only says you don't count, you're not important. English-plus (says) we recognize the treasures of your language and heritage," the governor's press secretary told the National Journal. "The policy is the same, but the tone is different" (emphasis added).

The governors have learned how to form multicultural coalitions, another feat that has eluded their congressional confreres. Florida's Jeb Bush won a majority of the Hispanic vote in his run; his brother George W. polls extremely well among blacks and Hispanics. The governors have allied with moderates in the Democratic Party and borrowed their best ideas. They are even willing to offend the die-hards of their own party: Few of the governors talk much about abortion. Bush has irritated conservatives by emphasizing public education and largely eschewing vouchers.

22000_22975_kuper_elephant2

S o, essentially, the new form of government invented by Bush, Pataki, & Co. is ... Clintonism: fiscal conservatism, deficits into surpluses, welfare reform, sweeteners for social programs, lots of euphemizing, and a willingness to co-opt the other side.

Not that there is anything wrong with what the governors have done. Their accomplishments are genuine and their states are thriving. But the GOP's eagerness to embrace them does suggest a certain hypocrisy. Conservatives, after all, have spent the last year crediting Clinton's polls to alchemy: He has lucked into the best economy in history. But if Clinton's popularity is alchemical, then so is the governors'. (Likewise, if the governors' popularity is legitimate, then so is Clinton's.) All of them owe their sky-high poll ratings to the economy and a few ounces of good sense. Of course the governors and the president managed to turn deficits into surpluses. Of course they cut welfare rolls. Of course they have delighted voters by goosing popular social programs with extra millions. You would have to be a moron not to have been a popular governor while tax revenue surged, unemployment vanished, and crime fell.

TODAY IN SLATE

Jurisprudence

Don’t Expect Adrian Peterson to Go to Prison

In much of America, beating your children is perfectly legal. 

Ken Burns on Why Teddy Roosevelt Would Never Get Elected in 2014

Cops Briefly Detain Django Unchained Actress Because They Thought She Was a Prostitute

Minimalist Cocktail Posters Make Mixing Drinks a Cinch

How the Apple Watch Will Annoy Us

A glowing screen attached to someone else’s wrist is shinier than all but the blingiest of jewels.

Books

Rainbow Parties and Sex Bracelets

Where teenage sex rumors come from—and why they’re bad for parents and kids.

Books

You Had to Be There

What we can learn from things that used to be funny.

Legendary Critic Greil Marcus Measures and Maps Rock History Through 10 Unlikely Songs

Catfish Creator Nev Schulman’s Book Is Just Like Him: Self-Deluded and Completely Infectious

Behold
Sept. 12 2014 5:54 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Jurisprudence
Sept. 14 2014 2:37 PM When Abuse Is Not Abuse Don’t expect Adrian Peterson to go to prison. In much of America, beating your kids is perfectly legal. 
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 12 2014 5:54 PM Olive Garden Has Been Committing a Culinary Crime Against Humanity
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 13 2014 8:38 AM “You’re More Than Just a Number” Goucher College goes transcript-free in admissions.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 12 2014 4:05 PM Life as an NFL Wife: “He's the Star. Keep Him Happy.”
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 12 2014 5:55 PM “Do You Know What Porn Is?” Conversations with Dahlia Lithwick’s 11-year-old son.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 14 2014 7:10 PM Watch Michael Winslow Perform Every Part of “Whole Lotta Love” With Just His Voice
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 12 2014 3:53 PM We Need to Pass Legislation on Artificial Intelligence Early and Often
  Health & Science
New Scientist
Sept. 14 2014 8:38 AM Scientific Misconduct Should Be a Crime It’s as bad as fraud or theft, only potentially more dangerous.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 12 2014 4:36 PM “There’s No Tolerance for That” Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh say they don’t abide domestic abuse. So why do the Seahawks and 49ers have a combined six players accused of violence against women?