Reformist conservative government works. That’s the lesson from the remarkable successes of Alabama Republican Gov. Bob Riley, perhaps the most underrated governor in these United States.
Mr. Riley certainly did not start his term from a position of strength. He won election by only 3,200 votes, and only after a recount battle that lasted weeks. His first year was hobbled by a horrendous budget crisis left over by predecessor Don Siegelman, who was later convicted on bribery charges. Mr. Riley tried to use the crisis as an occasion to push through an overly complicated tax-reform plan but was soundly defeated in a referendum.
Three years after that electoral loss, Mr. Riley was re-elected with 58 percent of the vote. His approval rating subsequently climbed into the 70s while the state’s unemployment rate dipped as low as 3.2 percent.
As Christian Bourge explains on the facing page, the governor turned things around with a combination of fiscal rectitude, tax cuts, educational innovation, transparency and an end of the soft corruption of implied shakedowns in government contracting. He also showed admirable leadership in handling the aftermath of Hurricanes Ivan and Katrina in back-to-back years.
National audiences can learn from Mr. Riley’s success. They should have learned similar things from the triumphs of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and from the Republican Congresses of 1995-99, all of which ushered in boom times on the strength of conservative economics and greater openness. Likewise with the effective conservative governorships of Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin and John Engler in Michigan in the 1990s, and of Jeb Bush in Florida this decade. Liberal governors cannot point to similar success stories.
Mr. Riley and Alabama made their gains despite obstruction from a Democratic-majority Legislature and a particularly powerful, anti-reformist state teachers’ union. The Riley success story is a reminder of the worthiness of persistent conservative ideals.