Rick Perry’s emergence as a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination is a sign of the times. The Texas governor’s leap into national prominence was made possible by the economic performance of his state, which has created jobs by the bushel full while the nation as a whole is losing them.
How much credit Perry deserves is an open question, but his candidacy brought the jobs issue to the center of the national political debate, where it should have been all along. Recent polls show Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the other presidential candidate who talks about job creation, running away from the rest of the Republican field.
On jobs and myriad other issues, it makes sense for Republicans to turn to the states for salvation. The news this year has been dominated by natural disasters, upheaval in the Middle East and political gridlock in Washington, D.C. All this has helped panic the markets and pushed the United States to the brink of another recession — not that most Americans think we ever really emerged from the last one.
Meanwhile, news from the state capitals has drifted to the back burner after early controversy over the successful efforts of Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, backed by a GOP-controlled Legislature, to curb the collective bargaining power of most public employees.
In the ensuing months, Republican-controlled state legislatures and governors have taken the nation on a conservative course on issues that, in addition to collective bargaining, include pension reform, abortion, voter identification, gun control and immigration. All this was made possible by the 2010 elections, in which Republicans gained more than 740 state legislative seats and a net of six governorships. Going into the election, the GOP held the legislative majority in both houses in 14 states. After it was over, the Republicans controlled both houses in 26 states and governorships in 29.
The most ballyhooed GOP electoral achievement in 2010 was its gain of 63 congressional seats and control of the House of Representatives. But Democrats retained the Senate and still have President Barack Obama in the White House. In the states they control, Republicans faced no such obstacles and have, on the whole, made the most of their opportunities.
There are historical antecedents for state leadership when there is divided government in Washington while one party holds a commanding majority in the statehouses. The most notable precedent was in the early years of the Great Depression, especially from 1930 to 1932, when Democrats controlled many state governments while Republican Herbert Hoover was president. Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected in 1932, and soon after his inauguration in March 1933 launched the New Deal.
Many of the transformational measures of this manifold social experiment — unemployment insurance, public works programs, deposit insurance, even Social Security — were modeled after successful programs that had been tried first in the states, especially FDR’s own state of New York during the governorship of Al Smith. It may seem odd to mention the conservative Perry and the progressive Smith in the same sentence, but both provided economic leadership in their states when it was lacking in Washington.
What is happening now, however, is a different sort of debate than the one that occurred during the Depression, when businesses and farms were failing and Americans turned to government as a last resort. Today, after decades of deficit spending that was briefly interrupted in the 1990s and then accelerated at full throttle during the presidencies of George W. Bush and Obama, there is broad public understanding that the federal government has been living far beyond its means.
Conservatives say the spending spigot must be turned off quickly to prevent the United States from going the way of Greece. Republicans are counting on their eternal prescription of lower taxes and private enterprise to jump-start the lagging economy and avoid a new recession. Liberals would prefer a second federal stimulus program even though the results of the first one were less than glorious. Democrats acknowledge the necessity of eventually reducing the deficit but say the immediate priority is to create jobs.
Obama, with no hope of winning congressional approval of a duplicate of his first stimulus bill, the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, has settled for a more modest proposal, which he is careful to call a “jobs” program rather than a “stimulus,” priced at $447 billion. Even that figure is inflated. More than half the benefits of the Obama proposal, whatever it is called, come from continuing a holiday on Social Security payroll taxes — with a partial extension of the tax break to employers — plus extension of unemployment benefits.
There have been echoes of the deficit debate in the states, which are limited by budget-balancing requirements that do not apply to the federal government. Republican dominance has contributed to frugal policies in which budgets are balanced more by spending cuts than tax increases. Partisanship on budgetary issues, however, is not as stark in the states as in the nation’s capital. In New York state, for instance, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo shunned calls from liberals in his own party (and The New York Times) to extend a tax surcharge on high incomes and instead won overwhelming bipartisan support for a prudent budget that wiped out a $10 billion deficit and reduced spending on Medicaid, the federal-state program that provides health care for the poor.
Indeed, most states, regardless of party control, have had to reduce spending for the neediest as the stumbling economy has driven families into poverty and increased the Medicaid rolls. More than 11,000 of the poorest families in Michigan have been told that in October they will lose cash-assistance grants the state has long provided. California and Arizona have made it harder for low-income residents to receive cash grants; Florida and Missouri are reducing the duration of jobless benefits for laid-off workers.
Where the GOP domination in the states has had the most impact is less on economic issues than on political ones such as voter identification, which Republicans describe as an effort to control fraud and Democrats see as an attempt to restrict access and depress voter turnout. There’s not much evidence for either proposition: voter fraud prosecutions are infrequent and turnout has increased in some states since voter ID laws went into effect. But in an era when identification is routinely required for travel and purchases, Republicans have the stronger political case. Six states in which the Republicans hold a legislative edge passed voter ID laws this year, bringing to 29 the number of states requiring identification at the polls, including 14 that require a photo.
The Republican ascendancy in the states has also spilled over onto social issues, predictably on abortion and somewhat surprisingly on prison sentencing reform. State after state is rebelling against the high cost of jailing minor offenders. Kentucky passed legislation (HB 463) to offer nonviolent drug offenders treatment instead of prison, a measure spearheaded by state Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, who has since become the GOP nominee for governor.
Various sentencing reforms also became law in four states — Georgia, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas — with Republican-run legislatures and GOP governors, as well as in Connecticut, where Democrats hold both the governorship and legislative majorities.
Opponents of abortion advanced their goals in several states where Republicans are in control. Indiana, Kansas and North Carolina cut off funding to Planned Parenthood and other social clinics that provide abortion. Texas required a doctor to perform a sonogram before an abortion (HB 15), while Alabama, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas and Oklahoma banned abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy. Abortion rights advocates have fought back in the courts. A federal judge ordered Kansas to restore federal funds to Planned Parenthood and another judge put the Indiana law on hold. Still another federal judge blocked a portion of the Texas law that required doctors to describe what they found on the sonograms to women who are having abortions.
Democrats have had no such luck in legal challenges to collective bargaining restrictions. The Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the bargaining ban on a 4-3 vote. Ohio passed an even stricter ban on collective bargaining (SB 5) that includes police officers and firefighters, which the Wisconsin law does not. Indiana also extended an existing ban to teachers (SB 575). Several other states tinkered with collective bargaining laws, generally at the expense of employees.
Whether the right turn in state legislatures foreshadows Republican victories in the 2012 presidential and congressional elections remains to be seen. But with the economy mired in slow growth and high unemployment, and the White House struggling to gain traction, Democrats have as much reason as Republicans did during the Depression to worry about their political prospects.
— Summerland resident Lou Cannon is a longtime national political writer and acclaimed presidential biographer. His most recent book — co-authored with his son, Carl — is Reagan’s Disciple: George W. Bush’s Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy. Cannon also is an editorial adviser to State Net Capitol Journal, which published this column originally.