Sunday, February 27, 2005

Many of the nation’s governors in both parties are reluctant to credit ideology as the reason Republican governors have a 28-22 majority over Democrats.

“If you look at it from the ideological standpoint, most blue states are now governed by Republicans, yet some of the most-red states are governed by Democrats,” Virginia Gov. Mark Warner said in an interview at the National Governors Association’s four-day meeting at the J.W. Marriott Hotel in Washington.

Republicans have held a majority of governors for a decade — a feat not achieved by the party since 1910. The Republican electoral dominance since 1994 has been widely described as a “conservative revolution,” but when asked if ideology explained the GOP’s continued success, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour chose another word.

“It’s policy — ideas matter,” said Mr. Barbour, who was Republican National Committee chairman from 1992 to 1996. “Republicans regained their reputation as the party of ideas in the mid-1990s, which was crucial to gain the majority in the House, Senate and among governors.”

At least on the issue of balanced budgets, Democratic governors seem influenced by the conservative trend.

“Many of the Democratic governors actually run on fiscally conservative platforms — Warner in Virginia, [Bill] Richardson in New Mexico and [Jennifer M.] Granholm in Michigan,” said Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican. “Even if they tend to be a little to left on social issues, when it comes to managing fiscal resources, everybody is a conservative.”

But Mr. Warner, chairman of the governors association, warned against such a generalization.

“Are all Democratic governors fiscal conservatives and are all Republican members of Congress fiscally irresponsible because they have run up the biggest deficits in our nation’s history?” the Virginia Democrat said. “I don’t know if you can paint either with that broad a brush.”

Some Republican critics agree with Mr. Warner, saying that fiscal-policy inconsistency helps explain why the GOP’s gubernatorial majority has declined since 1994, when sweeping wins boosted the party from 19 governorships to 31.

“Republicans have figured out a way to erode their majority,” Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist said after a private dinner for GOP governors over the weekend.

“We gave away governorships we shouldn’t have lost in Tennessee, New Jersey and Wisconsin because GOP governors increased spending and taxes,” Mr. Norquist said. “We recaptured California because [Arnold] Schwarzenegger ran on lowering taxes and spending.”

Cato Institute economist Stephen Moore agreed that Republicans have failed to maintain their tax-cutting bona fides.

“A lot of GOP governors have broken with conservative Republican orthodoxy and have raised taxes or proposed raising taxes,” he said. “The anti-tax sentiment firmly engraved in Congress has not really taken hold in the statehouses.”

Mr. Moore’s list of tax transgressors includes Mr. Huckabee of Arkansas and his fellow Republican governors in Alabama, Idaho, Indiana, New York, Nevada and Ohio.

But what conservatives depict as a betrayal of principle by Republicans, some Democrats describe as pragmatic flexibility.

“You get to be governor of California or New York or Massachusetts [blue states with Republican governors] only if you can reach across party lines,” Mr. Warner said, “and you get to be a governor of Virginia, Montana or North Carolina [red states with Democratic governors] only if you reach across party lines.”

Most Republicans agree on that point. “All politics are local, and fixing potholes is merely a metaphor for the work that governors do on a daily basis,” said Steve Truebner, Republican Governors Association political director. “They identify the problem, fix it and are normally credited for it. Over the last 10 years, these problems included welfare reform, education accountability and tax cuts.”

Personality and “star power” also play a role that can transcend issues and ideology, said Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, Edward G. Rendell. He cited an example in his own back yard — a possible re-election challenge next year from Republican political neophyte Lynn Swann, a former Pittsburgh Steelers football star.

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