The Peril of Faith

Politics and policy.
April 3 1999 3:30 AM

The Peril of Faith

Should we believe in the Republican governors?

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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.

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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 the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

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.

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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.

It's easy to be a statesman when all the options are good. The test of the governors' "new way"--and the test of America's rediscovered political faith--won't come till the lean years follow Clinton's seven fat ones.

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