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Norquist's Paradox

The victory of Colorado"s Referendum C, suspending the state"s disastrous TABOR law which limits government spending, is of huge significance for the fight against TABOR in other states. When other states are considering TABOR, Colorado mayors and legislators, especially Republicans, can be brought in to talk about the consequences and also show that tax limits are not always a political winner. This will help in a lot of states, but one of the most significant is Ohio, where GOP gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell -- also known as the Secretary of State who set the voting procedures last year -- expects to piggyback on a TABOR referendum next year.

But I'm interested in an even broader political question, sparked by Grover Norquist's comments about Colorado governor Bill Owens, once a darling of the conservatives but who supported the referendum to suspend TABOR. From the Washington Post:

But some conservatives who had held out Colorado's law as a citadel to be defended at all costs were in no mood for nuance. Mr. Owens, many said, betrayed his party.

"If you're a Republican governor or aspiring governor, what you learned from this is that opposition to a spending limit destroys a political career - this guy stood in front of a train," Grover Norquist, the founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform, an antitax group based in Washington, said in an interview.

As Ed Kilgore argues, the Colorado vote is a disaster for Norquist. But at the same time, Norquist is right. Bill Owens' national political career is destroyed. A few years ago, the Wall Street Journal and George Will were setting him up to run for president in 2008. He's taken some hits since then (his wife "kicked him out of the house" for a year, for reasons unknown, and his party lost the legislature, a U.S. Senate seat and two house seats last year) but this is the final blow.

But he's not the only one. Virtually every Republican governor is caught in the same trap, whether it involves TABOR or tax increases more generally.

And this is incredibly important. One of the great strengths of the Republican Party heading into the Bush era was the number of big-state Republican governors and the perception that they knew how to govern. People like Gingrich could spout their ideological bombast, but in Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio and elsewhere the face of the Republican party was governors who seemed to know what they were doing. Sure, some of them swept problems under the carpet and then stomped up and down on it, and some mastered the art of consequence-free tax cut politics, but they put on a good face. The perceived-successful Democratic governors circa 1997 you could count on one hand: Governor Hunt in North Carolina, Dean in Vermont, Kitzhaber in Oregon and a few others. Peter Beinart argued in the Wall Street Journal early in 2004 that the reason Dean seemed so strong was that there were no other viable Democratic governors, and that was very true. It's easy to say that Kerry made a poor candidate because Senators traditionally make poor candidates, but how many alternatives were there?

There are now, though, and the situation is completely reversed. I was in Arizona the other day when a poll came out putting Governor Napolitano's approval rating at 65% -- she's the anti-Bush, but not the only one. This shift is as important as anything that happens in Congress because governors are where presidents come from, and they are also where Senators come from. The only sure way to beat an incumbent senator is with a popular governor, and over the next few years some of these red-state governors will be the key to taking back the Senate. And governors are also the face of government to most people, and if they are competent and seem to have the right values, their party will be seen in the same light, as will government itself.

Meanwhile, Republican governors are stuck in Norquist's paradox. They can choose to govern, which means raising taxes, like Mitch Daniels in Indiana, and be completely ostracized by the national power brokers. Or they can be Schwarzenegger, spout the ideological talking points, and lose ground in their own states. It's a no-win situation. (There is one possible exception: Haley Barbour in Mississippi, who doesn't have to raise taxes because his state provides minimal services anyway and because the feds will be dumping many billions of dollars on him in the name of Katrina.)

Posted by Mark Schmitt on November 3, 2005 | Permalink


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Great post. It seems to me that Republican governors eventually find out that their constituents aren't as anti-government as the Grover Norquists of the world would like. Bush has found that out too and his solution has been to have his cake and eat it too--spend lots and cut taxes and the hell with the future.

Democrats can and have to offer a reasonable use of government to deal with problems. They have to fight the image of government as inevitably incompetent--which Bush has helped promote with the Katrina fiasco. I work in the federal government and what I find is that people hate government--until they need it. Grover Norquist is an idiot--of all the Republicans--yes, Chaney, Bush and Rumsfeld, too--I think I dislike him the most.

Posted by: Marc Schneider | Nov 3, 2005 3:56:26 PM

Zell Miller goes on that list of successful Democratic governors ... and that was before he went all loony.

One wonders when the first tax-increasing Republican governor will make a reasonable challenge for the Presidency. I think that Huckabee '08 will tell us whether such a candidacy is even remotely possible.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Nov 3, 2005 4:42:30 PM

I think it's fair to point out that Bush 41 is an instructive example for those Republicans tempted to raise taxes. He performed a statesmanlike act in raising taxes and got creamed for it within his own party. The governor of Alabama (ok it's Alabama) tried to raise taxes for schools and got hammered. (But it probably would have been ok if he had said it was going to improve the football team at U of A.)

Posted by: Marc Schneider | Nov 4, 2005 11:41:40 AM

Mitch Daniels is (1) governor of a state with a long history of fiscal responsibility (well, balanced budgets) no matter who is at the Statehouse and (2) a former OMB director who has (to be polite) seen the consequences of cut-and-spend.

Whitman left NJ voters realising that cutting income taxes just means out-of-control property taxes (we love our schools, even here in Essex County). That, and the quaint matter that the NJ Republican primary invariably produces an extreme (read: unelectable; see previous parenthetic) candidate (Schundler, Forrester), ensure that we can probably send the next Governor to the Senate...oops...

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interesting :]

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