Postmodern Conservative

Why Midwestern GOP Governors Fail

If you were looking for an ideal Republican presidential candidate, you might start with someone who was a popular, reforming, tax cutting, conservative, governor of a Midwestern, swing-state.  You would look at a Scott Walker or, if that fell through, a John Kasich.  And yet, as Josiah Neeley has pointed out, the Midwestern Republican governors have flopped as presidential candidates. 

One could blame the Republican electorate, but I don’t think that is the biggest problem.  The biggest problem is that the cleavages in public opinion are different at the state and the federal levels.  The result is that what works for Republicans as governors, hurts them as presidential candidates.  Both Republican governors who aspire to the presidency, and the institutional Republican Party have something to learn from the failures of Walker and Kasich.

A Republican governor can trim public sector pensions, open the path to property tax cuts, and thereby prosper.  It doesn’t work the same at the federal level.  A politician that tries to cut entitlement spending while also cutting high-earner taxes is setting himself up for disaster – even within the GOP electorate.

Why is that?  From one perspective, the two sets of policies are identical.  They both cut government spending on retirees and they both reduce taxes.  It’s all smaller government right?

Wrong.  Cutting pensions for government workers and taxes for homeowners hurts a smaller group and benefits a larger group.  Cutting entitlements and reducing high-earner taxes takes from most, while the (direct) benefits go to relatively few.  Entitlement cuts are still necessary, but getting a governor to sell a package that bundles increasing the Social Security retirement age with a capital gains tax cut isn’t going to work any better than having a senator make the same argument.  Don’t imagine that the governor will succeed because they did the same thing in balancing the state budget.  What they did at the state level was different.

The same problems show up when Republicans expect the famed pragmatism of Republican governors to save the party.  Republican governors are pragmatic when the shutter ineffective government programs and restructure agencies to provide better services at a lower price. 

Those same Republican governors think they are being pragmatic when they support increasing immigration.  Journalists call increasing immigration pragmatic.  So do the lobbyists who will guide the governors through national politics.  So will the businessmen – small and large – who have helped the governor at every stage his career. 

The problem is that increasing immigration is an incredibly unpopular policy.  The bigger problem is that everything in the governor’s experience conspires to blind him to this fact.  By the time they figure it out, it’s too late.    

That doesn’t mean that a governor can’t figure out the dynamics of federal-level politics.  Mitt Romney’s record as governor was far inferior to that of Scott Walkers, but Romney understood that he had to go to school on the differences between state-level and federal-level politics.  The result was that Romney was able to destroy a far more successful governor like Rick Perry. 

There are also lessons for the broader Republican Party.  The institutional GOP is looking for a resume or personality solution to what is primarily a policy problem.  The combination of entitlement reductions with high-earner tax cuts is toxic regardless of the “experience” or “optimism” of the person trying to sell that combination.  The obsession with increasing low-skill immigration destroyed the candidacy of Walker and mortally wounded the candidacy of Rubio – and it opened the door for Trump.  The Republican don’t need better politicians.  They need a federal agenda that won’t destroy the candidacies of serious presidential contenders.     

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