Construction Boon: It’s No Accident That the GOP is Being Rebuilt by Its Governors

E.J. Dionne, Jr.
EJ Dionne
E.J. Dionne, Jr. W. Averell Harriman Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

March 14, 1999

The Republican Party is transforming itself. It is realizing at last that we’re not in the 1980s anymore, and that it can’t run against the ’60s forever. That’s what the seemingly unstoppable rise of Texas Gov. George W. Bush means, but it’s also what explains the interest in the presidential candidacies of Elizabeth Dole and Arizona Sen. John McCain. While most Republicans don’t want to admit it, they’re changing because they’re coming to terms with the transformation in American politics brought about by the man they referred to scornfully during the impeachment battle as William Jefferson Clinton.

The obvious agents of change are the party’s governors—much as Clinton, the governor, was a change agent in the Democratic Party. Governors, unlike members of Congress, normally build expansive coalitions to win office—just as the Republicans need to do now. “By the circumstances we are involved in, we are obliged—you can’t avoid it—to be involved with and serve diverse populations,” says Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, a Republican who has been organizing his colleagues on behalf of Bush.

By contrast, most members of Congress represent smaller, relatively homogeneous constituencies. They can afford to be (and are rewarded for being) firmly in one ideological camp. “Governors are necessarily more pragmatic than you are in the legislative branch and they are in a position to take the initiative—they’ve got the bully pulpit,” says Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), who heads the National Republican Congressional Committee.

But the power of the governors, and of Bush in particular, rests not simply on the nature of their jobs but on a significant change in the political argument. The Republican Revolution of 1994 was inspired by the anti-government views of economist Friedrich Hayek, who tirelessly campaigned against government interference in free markets. House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Tex.) offered this translation of Hayek’s philosophy: “The market is rational and the government is dumb.”

Most Republicans still prefer the market to government, but they’re prepared to give government respect that they weren’t giving it before. Their change of heart reflects a simple calculation: Attacks on government, and on the services they provide, don’t work as an electoral strategy any more. Listen to Marc Spitzer, a top Republican in the Arizona Senate and a foe of big government spending: “There’s an emerging majority that’s fiscally conservative but recognizes that there’s a role for government, a limited role for government, that assists people in solving problems.”

Republicans, Spitzer argues, need to draw the distinction between “a healthy skepticism of government” and “a pathological hatred of government.” Most Republicans, he insists, don’t pathologically hate government—and they shouldn’t be afraid to say so, because “most people don’t, either.”

If what Spitzer is saying sounds a little like Bill Clinton, that’s no accident—even if Spitzer considers Clintonian rhetoric “a sham.” The political battle set off by the Republicans’ 1994 congressional victory was, at its most basic, a debate over whether government still had the capacity to do good. Clinton, who understood that the Republican victory had changed the terrain of the fight, was willing to declare in his next State of the Union speech that “the era of big government is over” and to abandon his own previously stated principles by signing a Republican-initiated welfare reform bill.

But he managed to win the argument about government by 1) proposing all manner of small government programs and 2) emphasizing his commitment to that famous quartet of “Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment.” In 1998, Clinton trumped the anti-government argument again by arguing that Social Security—the largest monument to New Deal liberalism—should take priority over a tax cut. Much to the surprise of the Republicans, tax cuts don’t seem to rank high on any voter’s list of priorities—a bad sign for congressional Republicans who had hoped to exploit anti-tax sentiments.

There’s also this: Clinton changed the political facts with his 1993 budget. He did so by concentrating his tax increases on the very wealthy. That also means that across-the-board tax cuts shower far more money on the rich than on anyone else. No wonder voters of average incomes, who benefit very little from across-the-board cuts, have so little enthusiasm for them.

In the meantime, the governors, Republicans and Democrats, were demonstrating their skill at running. . . . governments. There will probably never be a political job as good as being a governor in the late 1990s. Good economic times have sent floods of cash into state treasuries, allowing chief executives to cut taxes and push through new initiatives—especially on education and, in many cases, on roads, mass transit and environmental projects. What a strange notion: Government can grow at the same time that taxes are cut. Under such circumstances, it’s hard to convince voters that increasing government activity will take us down Hayek’s famous “road to serfdom.”

Governors—in good times especially—have a much easier time convincing people that they’re actually doing something. “You can put a singular personality and face on a governor because he has the bully pulpit,” says state Sen. James L. Brulte of California, his party’s caucus chairman. “You can’t put a personality or a face on a congressional delegation. It’s a metaphysical impossibility. When a governor sits down to make a decision, the decision’s made. When a legislature sits down to make a decision, you have a debate.”

The Bush phenomenon is as interesting as any. His popularity in Texas is built in part on issues that Clinton seemed to have a patent on. His education reforms are tough enough for conservatives and successful enough for everybody else. His shifting of state education spending actually moved money to poorer school districts—and was opposed by many in his own party even as it won support from Democrats. His emphasis on “inclusion” led him to oppose California’s Proposition 187, which wiped out key government benefits to illegal immigrants, and also led him to learn passable Spanish.

Then there is Bush’s embrace of “compassionate conservatism,” a term that began appearing in the Republican lexicon a couple of years ago. Many Republicans are understandably wary of the phrase: It seems like a capitulation to criticism of conservatism. “I have ordered my staff to never—ever—utter the words ‘compassionate conservative,’ ” former vice president Dan Quayle said in a recent letter to financial supporters. “This silly and insulting term was created by liberal Republicans and is nothing more than code for surrendering our values and principles.”

In fact, the term was created by and for conservative Republicans. The compassionate conservative believes that social problems are best solved by strengthening programs run by churches and community groups, rather than through government intervention. Republican consultant Alex Castellanos sees compassionate conservatism as defining “a more decentralized, modern, dynamic” approach to the country’s social ills and a declaration by conservatives that “we actually believe we can help more people.”

But never mind. Quayle is right to see that by admitting the need for an adjective, conservatives are bowing to a long-standing perception that they are indifferent to the plight of the have-nots. Here, too, they are learning from Clinton. “Clinton has shown an ability to evince some compassion and Republicans haven’t been able to,” says Spitzer. “We’re willing to overlook Clinton’s warts because he seems to care—and he’s co-opted Republican issues, so he’s not a commie pinko.”

One thing that prevented governor-style, something-for-everyone politics from being played in Washington was the federal deficit. For more than a decade, the dreams of every legislator, left, right and center, were hemmed in by the need to reduce the red ink.”

But suddenly the deficit went away and a surplus arrived. Now there are signs that Republican members of Congress want to play the governor’s game, meaning they’ll play to a broader, less ideological audience. If Clinton is trying to beat the Republicans by reserving much of the budget surplus money for Social Security, the Republicans will try to go him one better and insist—as Rep. Bill Archer (R-Tex.) did recently—that their way of saving Social Security is more secure than his.

If Clinton wants to make education an issue, so will Republicans. Thus did Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) propose spending even more on education than Clinton did. “We’re going to put some real money where our rhetoric has been,” he said.

The late political writer Samuel Lubell argued that the United States rarely has a two-party system. It has a one-and-a-half-party system, a “sun” party whose light dominates the landscape and a “moon” party that either reflects off or reacts to the sun party. In the 1980s, political conservatism in the Republican party was the sun. Democrats and liberals spent more than a decade responding. The result was Clinton’s formula, much as the British Labor Party’s response to Thatcherism was Tony Blair’s “Third Way.”

The Republicans’ government-is-the-problem view isn’t the sun anymore. At the moment, it’s been supplanted by a moderate progressivism that accepts government’s necessary role. But that does not mean that Democrats have translated this philosophical transformation into partisan dominance. Judging by the vote count in recent elections, there is no dominant political party now. The strength both Bush and Dole show in the polls against Vice President Gore suggests that Republicans still have the capacity to shape the political debate in 2000 to their liking.

But by fits and starts, Republicans are realizing that if they are to do this, they will have to respond to the problems Clinton brought to the fore—education, social insurance, health care reform and child care—and to the public’s embrace of his idea that it takes a moderate but active government to solve them. Racicot, for one, is not at all bothered that Republicans are responding to changed circumstances. “There is a leavening process, a consensus building process that occurs,” he says. “What’s happening here is that the people in policy-making positions have responded to the issues that are important to the American people.”

Whether George W. Bush is all his supporters say he is—and whether he can bridge the Republican divide on such issues as abortion—will be tested over the next year and a half. The rethinking in the Republican Party is not as far along as Democratic rethinking was in 1992. And there will be much Republican resistance to accommodating the American majority’s desire for a governing party that does not view government as “dumb.”

But if bringing about that accommodation is Bush’s essential mission, there is much he could learn from the man in the White House. “I believe that just as Bill Clinton was a New Democrat, this year there’s going to be a New Republican,” says Castellanos.

Because of Bush’s “ability to reach across the spectrum,” Castellanos says, “he is as significant to Republicans as Bill Clinton was to Democrats.” You could say that’s a funny kind of compliment coming from a Republican. But it’s a compliment nonetheless.

E.J. Dionne is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.