Governors “Vanguard” of Republican Reform Agenda

Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey addresses the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, August 28
Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey addresses the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, August 28 (EPA)

There’s a good reason why Republicans asked New Jersey governor Chris Christie to deliver the keynote address for their national convention in Tampa, Florida on Tuesday. He has spearheaded conservative reform efforts in an otherwise largely Democratic state, proving the potentially widespread appeal of his party’s economic and fiscal policies.

Since Republicans won six additional governorships in 2010, including those of traditional Democratic states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin (Christie won election a year earlier), they have made fiscal reform their priority, often at the expense of their popularity, if temporarily.

Even if they were vehemently criticized by Democrats for some of their efforts — Wisconsin governor Scott Walker even faced a recall election after ending collective bargaining for government workers — putting these state executives prominently on display with primetime speech slots at presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s nominating convention in Tampa makes perfect sense. They have, writes Kimberley Strassel in The Wall Street Journal, “become the heart of the conservative movement, many pursuing the sort of thorough overhauls of government once considered impossible.”

Think of the reform governors as the vanguard of the far-reaching policy reforms that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan now want to bring to the national arena.

Chris Christie and Scott Walker both took on the powerful trade unions in their states to rein in the costs of public health and pension insurance plans which threatened to drown out other spending commitments. Previous Democratic administrations had tried to plug the hole with tax increases but the Republican governors opted to reduce taxes and spending simultaneously.

It worked. When Christie entered office, he faced a $1.3 billion deficit. Walked had to grapple with a $3.6 billion budget shortfall. New Jersey practically balanced its budget in 2012. Wisconsin is expected to have a surplus next fiscal year.

Once Christie and Walker had proven that the unions, who long financed the election campaigns of Democratic state legislators and gubernatorial candidates, were not unbeatable, other states followed suit. In 2011, eighteen states increased their workers’ pension contributions. Sixteen raised the retirement age for civil servants.

Christie and Walker attracted national attention for their uncompromising budget slashing but perhaps the most successful effort has been made by Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana who turned a $200 million budget deficit into a $1.3 billion surplus in five years while lowering tax rates. Through regulatory and tax reform, Daniels made Indiana more attractive to businesses and the state is now leading in private-sector job growth.

Daniels also pioneered education reform. With Bobby Jindal in Louisiana, he signed laws that, according to Strassel, “serve as national models for competition and parental choice — making hundreds of thousands of children eligible for vouchers,” which allow low-income families to send their children to private schools, “fast tracking charter schools and tackling the once taboo subject of teacher tenure.”

Christie joined them in the effort this month, scrapping New Jersey’s tenure law and tying teachers’ employment to merit. Again, despite staunch resistance from the unions.

Daniels, who, like Christie, was mentioned as a possible Republican Party presidential contender before Mitt Romney emerged as the presumptive nominee, told a conservative audience last year that his approach to fiscal reform could also work for Washington.

The federal government, Daniels said at a gathering of the Conservative Political Action Committee in February 2011, is “morbidly obese” and “needs not just behavior modification but bariatric surgery.” As Christie put it Tuesday night, “If we could do this in a blue state like New Jersey with a conservative Republican governor, Washington is out of excuses.”

But Daniels also warned that if Republicans are to propose bold spending cuts, “it would help” if the American people “liked us, just a bit.” He drew the ire of social conservatives for proposing a “truce” on issues like abortion and gay marriage which strongly divide the country.

Democrats, in the election campaign for November, are eager to tie mainstream Republicans to the right-wing fringe of their party that opposes abortion under all circumstances as well as marriage and adaption rights for gay couples. The majority of Americans is less inflexible and currently far more concerned about economic and job growth than cultural issues. If Romney, in the footsteps of his party’s most successful governors, does not succumb to distractions but focuses his campaign on budget discipline and reducing unemployment, he stands a good chance of winning the presidency in the fall.

Republican Presidential Primary Race Matures

The Republican primary field has narrowed considerably in recent weeks. Real estate mogul Donald Trump’s departure from the race heralded the end of what some had dubbed the “silly season” while both Mississippi governor Haley Barbour and former Baptist minister Mike Huckabee announced that they would not seek the nomination after all. The remaining high-profile contenders should nearly all be able to appeal to the political center which does leave social conservatives without a favorite.

Barbour and Huckabee enjoyed support from Southern voters and evangelicals who make up the backbone of the modern Republican Party. Barbour’s departure could benefit Indiana governor Mitch Daniels in terms of fundraising while former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty is now the most outspoken social conservative among the half dozen candidates that have a chance of securing the nomination.

With the exception of longtime Texas congressman Ron Paul — a libertarian who is popular among Tea Party activists — and former House speaker Newt Gingrich, the likely frontrunners all have executive experience. Daniels and Pawlenty have the strongest records on fiscal responsibility, probably the most important issue of the 2012 election as the federal government is projected to face multitrillion dollar shortfalls for several years to come.

In Indiana, Mitch Daniels faced a $600 million deficit in 2004. He slashed $1.5 billion in spending from his state’s $27 billion budget by laying off public-sector employees, limiting their collective bargaining rights and cutting education funding. This year, he enacted school reforms that gradually introduces vouchers for all Hoosiers — an experiment that many professional conservatives would like to see extended to the national level.

Indiana is one of few states with a budget surplus and leading in private-sector job growth thanks to the governor’s tax cuts and regulatory reforms.

Daniels has been criticized by social conservatives for proposing a “truce” on cultural issues, however, including abortion and gay marriage, telling The Weekly Standard last year, “We’re going to just have to agree to get along for a little while,” at least until the nation’s fiscal woes are resolved.

Quietly evangelical but rather less dismissive of the issues that matter to many committed Republicans, especially in the early primary states of Iowa and South Carolina, is Tim Pawlenty. He also managed to balance his state’s budget without raising taxes and champions a “Sam’s Club Republicanism” that speaks to blue-collar voters. His perceived lack of charisma could make it difficult for Pawlenty to compete with Barack Obama in 2012, however.

Probably more charismatic but far less conservative is former Utah governor Jon Huntsman who served as President Obama’s ambassador to China between August 2009 and last April and previously as ambassador to Singapore for President George H.W. Bush.

Despite his opposition to abortion, strong support for gun owners’ rights and lowering tax rates, Huntsman may be hampered by his moderate positions on climate change and gay marriage. Unlike the other contenders, he has the foreign policy credentials to take on a president who is blamed for projecting weakness abroad. Huntsman speaks Mandarin and Taiwanese Hokkien and spent many years in the Far East. He left office as governor with an approval rating of over 80 percent.

Huntsman has millions of dollars in family wealth that he could pour into a primary campaign but fellow Mormon Mitt Romney is still ahead in fundraising and organization. His support for a health reform scheme in the state of Massachusetts that was eerily similar to what conservatives refer to as “Obamacare” remains a matter of contention that Romney has yet to come to terms with. While he favors repealing the president’s health reform law, the former governor defended his own record by claiming that the states should be America’s “laboratories of democracy” while the federal government has no mandate to force all citizens to buy insurance.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich begged to differ on NBC’s Meet the Press this weekend where he said he supported an individual insurance mandate despite its unpopularity on the right. He further distanced himself from his party by characterizing attempts to privatize Medicare, an entitlement program that finances health care for seniors, as “radical.”

Gingrich is probably the most populist of viable Republican candidates but former Alaska governor Sarah Palin hasn’t ruled out a run yet. She is resented by independents and Democrats, however, while her popularity even among conservatives is fading. Rick Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, is running on a social conservative platform but his opinions about homosexuality and creationism are so peculiar that he couldn’t possibly win a general election.

Despite the country’s lackluster economic recovery and deplorable state finances, it may still be difficult for a Republican to beat Obama in 2012.

In 2008, the president won 359 electoral votes, including a lone elector in the state of Nebraska. Even if he loses Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin — many of which are traditional battleground states where the impact of the recession has been severe — Obama would still win exactly the 270 votes needed to win. If he also loses his one vote from Nebraska, the race would be tied.

The two states that the president cannot afford to lose are Florida and Pennsylvania. The former was won by George W. Bush in both 2000 and 2004 while the latter went for the Democrat in those elections. Each time, though, the margins of victory were slim and both states trended Republican during the congressional midterm elections of 2010. Between them, Florida and Pennsylvania hold 49 electoral votes.

Indiana School Voucher Program Has Problems

Governor Mitch Daniels’ introduction of an educational voucher program in the state of Indiana, designed to enhance school choice and boost quality, is widely praised. The Atlantic‘s Conor Friedersdorf is thrilled, noting that two-thirds of Indiana voters approved the plan, giving the rest of the country a chance to see “how it works out on a larger scale than has ever been tried before.” But the libertarian Cato Institute’s Adam Schaeffer is worried. Writing for The Huffington Post, he describes the voucher program as “a tactical victory for highly constrained choice won at the price of a broad strategic defeat for educational freedom.”

Unlike previous experiments with school vouchers, all of Indiana’s children would be eligible to enroll within three years, allowing families rich and poor to afford whatever education they prefer, public or private.

Other reforms enacted by the Indiana legislature as part of the governor’s education agenda include: Allowing principals to conduct impromptu classroom visits; requiring districts to regularly evaluate teachers; requiring teachers of grades 5 through 12 to have a college major in the subject they hope to teach.

Teachers’ unions would be prevented in the future from negotiating on anything but wages and benefits, including curriculum, instructional practices and evaluation formulas, making it easier for schools to fire teachers.

The new law also requires schools to obtain parental permission for their children to be placed in the classroom of a teacher rated “ineffective” two years in a row. Critics are afraid that this will prompt school administrators to assign the most disadvantaged students to the worst teachers, knowing that poor students’ parents are less likely to have the time and social capital to take advantage of opting out. With the voucher program in place though, they would no longer be at a financial disadvantage and able to send their children to whatever school they like. Read more

Republican Primary Race: A Governors’ Game

Mitt Romney went to speech in the early primary state of New Hampshire this weekend. Mike Huckabee has been touting his latest book, A Simple Government. Newt Gingrich launched a website and continued to think “very seriously” about running.

The Republican primary field has been taking shape, with some potential contesters dropping out and at least one, former Utah governor and current ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, added to the mix. But no one has formally announced a candidacy yet.

Nearly all of the Republicans routinely managed as potential contenders have one thing in common. With the exception of Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, they each either govern or once governed a state.

Haley Barbour of Mississippi and Mitch Daniels of Indiana are both in a good position to run against President Barack Obama if the elections would be dominated by fiscal issues. They both managed to rein in spending in their states and were not afraid to touch popular entitlement programs. “You can save money on entitlements,” Barbour told the Conservative Political Action Conference last month. “You just gotta have the will to do it.”

With $14 trillion in debt and several trillions more in deficit spending projected for the rest of the decade, the country cannot regain fiscal balance without reforming pension and health support programs.

Daniels, at the same event, criticized the president for his fiscal irresponsibility, casting the national debt as a new “red menace” and attacking the “regulatory rainforest through which our enterprises must hack their way.”

Since he became governor, Indiana paid down some 40 percent of its debt while other states plunged in the red. Without raising taxes, Daniels managed to balance Indiana’s budget and attract businesses. His support for a “truce” on social issues, including abortion and gay marriage, is unpopular with social conservatives but could win him support from centrists during a general election.

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has hinted at a presidential run in the past but always backed away from actually becoming a candidate which would jeopardize his lucrative involvement in a variety of political action groups. He was nevertheless suspended from Fox News as a contributor along with Santorum — the clearest sign yet of them possibly running.

Former governors Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty, of Massachusetts and Minnesota respectively, have both appeared to be serious about seeking the nomination. They have each made several national talk show appearances and visited early primary states.

Romney, who lost the nomination against John McCain for the 2008 election, has an Achilles’ heel: his support for a health reform scheme in the state of Massachusetts that was eerily similar to President Obama’s health effort.

While he has called for the repeal of “Obamacare,” the former governor defended his own record by claiming that the states should be America’s “laboratories of democracy” while the federal government has no mandate to force all people to buy insurance.

In New Hampshire last week, Romney admitted that Massachusetts’s health program “wasn’t perfect” and promised to never “usurp the constitutional power of states with a one size fits all federal takeover.” He may have to reiterate that promise many times if he is to persuade small-government conservatives united in the Tea Party.

The former governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee, who was also in the race for the nomination three years ago, has trashed the Massachusetts health effort as “socialized medicine,” claiming in his book that it increased costs and reduced the quality of care. He told Fox News Sunday last week that he would make the decision whether to run or not depending on the response to his book.

Huckabee has scored well among conservatives but lacked broad appeal. When he said that President Obama grew up in Kenya instead of Indonesia recently, it drew a fierce rebuke from the left, even after the former governor recognized his mistake on television.

Huckabee and Alaska’s Sarah Palin also had contracts with Fox News which were not suspended. Palin has not appeared very enthusiastic about running, saying she will if there are no better candidates. Her approval rating among likely Republican primary voters in Iowa and South Carolina, vital states for securing the nomination, dropped in recent months. Among independents and Democrats, she has never been popular.

Mitch Daniels, Mike Huckabee Talk 2012

Two possible Republican presidential contenders for 2012, Indiana governor Mitch Daniels and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, appeared on Fox News Sunday this weekend.

Daniels, who as governor has managed to avert the sort of fiscal catastrophe looming that is in many other states, is in the middle of a stalled legislative session as many Indiana Democrats are in Illinois to avoid having to vote on public-sector reforms.

The opposition originally left the state in protest of a bill that would make Indiana a “right to work” state, allowing employees to opt out of joining a labor union if there is one in their field of work. That bill is dead now but the Democrats have yet to return, citing eleven more bills that they won’t vote on.

Daniels refused to negotiate as long as the Democrats were out of the state. “While they are subverting the democratic process, there is nothing to talk about,” he said, adding: “they ran off to Illinois ostensibly over the right to work bill. But as soon as they got what they wanted there, they issued an ultimatum from a hot tub over there with about ten more items.”

The issue in Indiana is rather a different one from Governor Scott Walker’s legislative effort in Wisconsin. Democratic lawmakers there have also fled the state while unions protest a measure that would strip them of their collective bargaining right. Across the country, Republican governors have taken on public-sector unions which often extract far more generous pay and benefits for their members than workers in the private sector enjoy.

Daniels effectively undercut public-sector unions’ ability to collectively bargain six years ago and has since worked to balance his state’s budget. Since 2004, the 49 other states in the nation increased their debt levels by an average of 40 percent. Indiana has paid down its debt by 40 percent and is one of only nine states to have the highest rating from all three rating agencies. Indiana’s business climate has improved significantly as a result of the governor’s tax cuts. The state has added jobs at twice the national pace.

The governor has been urged by many conservatives to seek his party’s presidential nomination but Daniels told Fox that he hadn’t made a decision yet. According to The New York Times‘ David Brooks, this is the Republican Party’s quandary. “The man who would be the party’s strongest candidate for the presidency is seriously thinking about not running.”

Daniels might not match Barack Obama in grace — “If it comes down to height and hair, I probably wouldn’t do very well,” he told Fox — but could on substance, according to Brooks. “They could have a great and clarifying debate: What exactly are the paramount problems facing the country? What is government’s role in solving them?”

At the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington this month, Daniels characterized America’s national debt as a “new red menace,” urging Republicans to rally voters under the banner of fiscal conservatism despite policy differences they might have with independents.

While the costs of federal entitlement and health-care programs are skyrocketing, few politicians have volunteered concrete policy solutions but Daniels has. When asked what he would do about Social Security, the governor said that he would bifurcate it, raise the age in which people get it, and if someone has a better idea he’d like to hear it. Medicare would be turned into a voucher program.

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee may be a more likely contender for the presidency yet he wrote in his latest book, A Simple Government, that he hated the process of campaigning. On Sunday he clarified that remark. “I love campaigning,” he said. “I don’t enjoy what I would call the peripheral of it, which is the part you dread. And the peripheral is you spend so much of your time defending rather than actually going out and talking about issues that you think would make America a great country.”

Huckabee, who attempted to secure the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, harshly criticized Barack Obama in his book, writing, “Just about everything he thinks is good for America is actually bad for our present and worse for our future.”

On Fox News Sunday, he added that the accumulation of debt that has occurred under this administration is horrifying and hampering growth. “I mean, the first rule is, if you’re in a hole, quit digging. If you’re a family and you just lost your job and you’re broke, you don’t go out and go on a spending spree. You start figuring out how to cut your expenses.”

Chris Wallace asked Huckabee about his apparent breach of Ronald Reagan’s “eleventh commandment” which told Republicans not to speak ill of fellow party members. Huckabee has criticized the health-care reform scheme which Mitt Romney enacted as governor of Massachusetts, calling it “socialized medicine.”

Huckabee noted that there’s a difference “in Ronald Reagan saying don’t speak ill of another Republican and don’t evaluate what another Republican’s proposals are” before urging Romney to distance himself from health-care reform. “I don’t have a problem with a governor in any state taking risk, trying something bold,” said Huckabee. “But if it doesn’t work, for heaven’s sakes, let’s not put it in all fifty states.”

Asked whether he’s running for president, Huckabee said that he’s waiting to see how people respond to his book. “This book is my message. This book is what I stand for and what I believe. I want people to say, you know what, that guy has got ideas we can live with. Or maybe they’re going to say this guy is a crazy fool.”

Daniels Casts Mounting Debt as “Red Menace”

Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington DC Friday night, Indiana governor Mitch Daniels characterized the American national debt as a “new red menace,” urging Republicans to rally voters under the banner of fiscal conservatism despite policy differences they might have with independents.

Daniels has been criticized by some conservatives for proposing a “truce” on social issues, including abortion and gay marriage. He didn’t explicitly refer to the issue in his speech last night but did suggest that Republicans reach out to people “who never tune in to Rush or Glenn or Laura or Sean,” referring to four popular conservative opinion makers.

As the federal government — “morbidly obese,” according to the governor — is set to borrow forty cents of every dollar it spends this year, it “needs not just behavior modification but bariatric surgery.” Tough reforms are needed to balance the budget. If Republicans are to propose bold spending cuts, “it would help,” said Daniels, if the American people “liked us, just a bit.”

I for one have no interest in standing in the wreckage of our republic saying, “I told you so” or “You should’ve done it my way.

In his own state, Daniels managed to turn a $200 million budget deficit into a $1.3 billion surplus in five years while lowering instead of raising taxes. By cutting red tape and overly complicated tax codes, Daniels made Indiana more attractive to businesses and the state is currently leading in private-sector job growth. He proposed similar solutions for the country.

Citing former treasury secretary William E. Simon, Daniels called for “a tax system that looks like someone designed it on purpose.” The purpose, he said, should be private-sector growth. “So lower and flatter, and completely flat is best.”

Second, “untie Gulliver,” or rid America of the “regulatory rainforest through which our enterprises must hack their way.”

After two years of expanding economic regulation, President Barack Obama’s promise to cut “dumb” rules and red tape was “a wonderment,” according to Daniels, “as though the number one producer of rap music had suddenly expressed alarm about obscenity.” (As his audience hesitatingly chuckled to that, the governor asked: “Need a minute?”)

A moratorium on new regulation is a minimal suggestion. Better yet, move at least temporarily to a self certification regime that lets America build and expand and explore now and settle up later in those few instances where someone colors outside the lines.

Thirdly, Daniels argued for increased energy production in the United States. “Drill and frack and lease and license. Unleash in every way the jobs potential in the enormous energy resources we have been denying ourselves.”

While the president maintains that “drilling alone cannot come close to meeting [America’s] long-term energy needs,” there are vast reserves of oil and natural gas waiting to be exploited underneath the Atlantic coastline, beneath the northern coast of Alaska, and on land, in Colorado and Wyoming. Combined, these regions hold over two hundred billion barrels of oil and 2,000 trillion cubic feet of natural gas that are recoverable with today’s technology. If fully developed, it would be enough to free the country from the import of foreign oil for almost fifty years.

Daniels preempted criticism that deep spending cuts would be “painful” to ordinary Americans, wondering, “If government spending prevents pain, why are we suffering so much of it? If you want to experience real pain,” he added, “just stay on the track we are on.” At the same time he warned that skepticism of “big government” should not lead one to contempt all government.

After all, it is a new government we hope to form, a government we will ask our fellow citizens to trust to make huge changes.

If such huge changes are to come about, Republicans cannot lose faith in the entrepreneurial spirit of the American people, said Daniels, in conclusion to a speech that certainly sounded presidential.

All great enterprises have a pearl of faith at their core, and this must be ours: that Americans are still a people born to liberty. That they retain the capacity for self-government. That, addressed as freeborn, autonomous men and women of God given dignity, they will rise yet again to drive back a mortal enemy.

The Indiana governor hasn’t committed himself to a White House run yet but told Politico this week that he would have the cash and the support to win his party’s nomination. “If I were to decide to do this, we would have an unbelievable letterhead,” he predicted.

Daniels suggested that three things could keep him from running — his wife’s concerns, the calculation that his party or the country aren’t prepared for deep spending cuts or the emergence of another capable candidate.

Republican Governors Champion School Reform

Even if education standards in most of the United States continue to decline while costs skyrocket, reformers are continually cast aside as the antagonists of teachers and public schools alike. At least two governors are aggressively contending that assertion, suggesting that tenure should be abolished and merit pay introduced.

In New Jersey, Republican governor Chris Christie, who is coping with the legacy of decades of deficit spending and government overreach in his state, is challenging conventional thinking and the powerful union establishment by proposing to introduce vouchers and have underperforming public school teachers fired.

Teachers, Christie told The New York Times, are “the most important thing for learning.” Parental involvement and technology can enhance student performance. “But if you don’t have a good teacher in front of the classroom, all the rest of that stuff is a sideshow.”

Christie’s push for education reform is endorsed by former District of Columbia public school chancellor Michelle Rhee who launched the advocacy group Students First recently. She is urging lawmakers to put children at the forefront of education reform instead of teachers. “If there are any protections that should be afforded to someone in public education, it should be to children, not to adults,” she said on the Fox Business Network this week. Tenure, Rhee added, should not be allowed to shield ineffective teachers from dismissal.

In Indiana, Republican governor Mitch Daniels stressed the economic importance of improving education standards. In his State of the State address last Tuesday, he reminded legislators that youngsters in East Asia are doing far better than American students. “They ought to be. They are in school, not 180 days a year like here, but 210, 220, 230 days a year. By the end of high school,” said Daniels, “they have benefited from two or three years more education than Hoosier students. Along the way, they have taken harder classes.” If America is to continue to compete with these countries in the future, education reform is essential. “There is no time to wait.”

“It starts with teacher quality,” according to Daniels. Like his New Jersey counterpart, the Indiana governor pointed out that class size, by comparison, “is virtually meaningless. Put a great teacher in front of a large class, and you can expect good results.”

To improve student performance, Indiana should radically reform tenure if not get rid of it altogether. “We have seen ‘teachers of the year’ laid off, just because they weren’t old enough,” said Daniels. “This must change.”

Like all education reformers, the Indiana and New Jersey governors are confronted with vehement union opposition however. As Daniels put it, “Advocates of change in education [have] become accustomed to being misrepresented.”

If you challenge the fact that 44 cents of the education dollar are somehow spent outside the classroom, you must not respect school boards. If you wonder why doubling spending didn’t produce any gains in student achievement, you must be criticizing teachers. If your heart breaks at the parade of young lives permanently handicapped by a school experience that leaves them unprepared for the world of work, you must be ‘anti-public schools.’

There is nothing wrong with pointing out that public schools aren’t working though. They distort the market, making private education far more expensive than it might otherwise be. Test scores among students in the public school system are low and these institutions have consequently come to oppose standardized testing, arguing that poor performance is harmful to a child’s self-esteem.

Rather than allowing quick learners to advance, classes are rarely organized according to ability. Uniform curricula and peer pressure discourage excellence instead. Government run schools now mass produce mediocrity. Pupils, and parents, deserve a better choice.