Governors “Vanguard” of Republican Reform Agenda

The party’s successful state leaders point the way for presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

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.