The CIA leak scandal, the increasingly intense debate over pre-war intel and the looming Supreme Court battle have sucked up the lion's share of oxygen in the world of politics and policy lately. But perhaps the two most important stories out there right now are the ongoing Jack Abramoff/pay-to-play scandals now being investigated by the feds and John McCain's Indian Affairs Senate committee, and the decision Colorado voters made yesterday to cast off the self-imposed legislative and budgetary straitjacket known as TABOR (Taxpayers' Bill of Rights). The two are somewhat linked, but I'm going to exercise my policy-wonk prerogative and focus on TABOR today.
TABOR was the unfortunate product of two ascendant trends from the 1990s: the general prosperity of the country, and the increasingly effective organizing on the right led by the anti-tax fanatic Grover Norquist. His "taxpayer protection pledge" that Republican legislators promise never to raise taxes is better known, but the TABOR idea--essentially, that any surplus be immediately refunded to taxpayers rather than re-invested into public programs--was far more dangerous. During the 12 years TABOR was in effect, Colorado experienced sharp declines in the quality of its education, health care, transportation and social service systems compared to other states; see here for a Center for American Progress assessment of TABOR's damage.
Eventually, the problems became so pronounced that Republican Governor Bill Owens--who had championed the measure in 1992 and came to power in large part on its popularity--campaigned for its partial repeal this year. The move probably costs him any chance at a presidential nomination in 2008 or afterward, and brings into focus the similar dilemma that Republican governors are facing all over the country: as Mark Schmitt observes, they're trapped between the demands of their constituents and those of the conservative "movement":
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.
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.)
During the 1990s, when times were generally good or at least were perceived that way, it was probably a lot easier for Republican governors to appease the movement people by tax cuts. Sure, support for higher education and safety-net services dipped, but middle-class voters didn't feel directly threatened and there was probably even some political value in taking on liberal advocates. Now, however, the winds have shifted and those in the middle seem to find it easier to identify with low-income workers and even the poor than those at the top. (Maybe the historic gap between spiking corporate profits and stagnant real wages has something to do with this...?) Bill Owens has made his choice. Other Republican governors are, as Stephen Colbert might say, "on notice." When circumstances force a decision between governance and ideology, it's generally gonna be over for Grover.