Despite the bad news from the election, the GOP continues to make politically significant gains in their tally of state governorships, increasing their majority from 29 to 30. This might seem like modest cause for reassurance, but it could signify an important route forward for the GOP, given the partisan firewall surrounding the presidency and the Senate.
The GOP’s central message of smaller federal government translates into a pitch for stronger state authority. Advocates for stronger state government seek a sane, close-to-home approach to governance, diminishing federal reach. Yet if the GOP sincerely wants more control vested in state governments, why aren’t conservatives cheering the second consecutive election cycle that saw an increase in their gubernatorial majority? These governorships are often found in states otherwise hostile to conservatism: New Jersey, Wisconsin, Louisiana, New Mexico and Michigan are all run by Republican governors. This year, Republican Pat McCory won North Carolina, largely because the state languishes with 9.6 percent unemployment.
State authority is crucial now more than ever: The only available avenue left for resisting Obamacare is at the state level. More than ever we need conservative state leaders, seeking whatever exemptions are available, crafting legal challenges, using the legislative system to their advantage in the interim. Even if Mr. Romney had won the White House, his ability to completely repeal Obamacare would have been far more limited than his rhetoric promised. To repeal this massive legislation, governors working together will be far more effective than a president working against a gridlocked Congress.
Too often it seems the general voting public does not understand the basic premises of American federalism. We cannot just talk about the limitations on federal power enshrined in the Constitution, or preach, as Calvin Coolidge did in 1926, the “salutary independence of the states.” It is also insufficient to protest all exercises of federal power, as the Tea Party is inclined. Instead, the GOP should explain the animating logic behind American federalism, understood as an instrument for combining the advantages of large scale political solidarity with the benefits of small scale democratic governance.
Even when the Constitution was written, James Madison understood that the “proper line of partition marking the authority of the general and that of the State governments” is so “arduous” that it would “puzzle the greatest adepts at political science.” This complexity allows a president either to claim powers he does not have, or to feign powerlessness when politics requires it, rather than basing his activities in office on legal principle. Thus, President Obama supports the powers of state legislatures when they permit him to support homosexual “marriage” rhetorically without committing to any controversial executive action. When it comes to the implementation of Obamacare, however, he supports the powers of states far less.
The Constitution requires power-sharing between the states and the federal government. This system was designed to encourage local political participation and the cultivation of civic virtue. Our Republican governors are now the front line of American conservatism. They need to help instill in the American public a deeper recognition of the conditions most conducive to free democratic life and human flourishing. Fidelity to the principle of self-governance is the first ingredient. Our Republican governors should make this the centerpiece of their efforts.
Ivan Kenneally is editor in chief of Dailywitness.com.