If the states, as Louis Brandeis put it, are the laboratories of democracy, then it's only fitting that the 2006 election, which ushered in a host of eager new experimenters, fell just a week before Brandeis' 150th birthday. For the first time since 1994, Democrats now control a majority of governorships in the country--28 in all. Even as Washington faces the prospect of continuing gridlock, these new governors enter oace with the potential to spark a progressive restoration across the country--and emerge a particularly potent presidential farm team.
The action in government has been in the states for a while now. "The federal government has increasingly devolved decision-making to the governors," says Peter Dreier, the E.P Clapp distinguished professor of polities at Occidental College in Los Angeles. This was, in part, an ideological shift: The Gingrich Revolution trumpeted its renewed federalism, enhancing state authority over everything from welfare to Medicaid. States can't deficit spend, so handing them once-federal responsibilities under the rubric of a restored federalism promised to shrink the expansiveness, generosity, and responsiveness of government services. Federalist lipstick? Meet small-government pig.
But it's not easy being a service-slashing ideologue on the state level. "Republican governors tend to be more liberal than Republican senators and congressmen," Dreier explains. "Governors can see the consequences of federal cutbacks and unfunded federal mandates. They see the consequences of letting cities deteriorate. They have to pay for the Medicaid patients. They have to pay for the consequences of housing cuts."
So Republican governors operate in tension with Republican congresses. They need federal appropriations to invest in infrastructure, keep their fiscal status sound, and provide popular services their party finds ideologically objectionable. As Bush's budget director, Mitch Daniels was a supply-sider so committed that Grover Norquist named him 2002's "Hero of the American taxpayer." But after becoming governor of Indiana, he promptly broke Norquist's heart by raising taxes. Daniels, a crestfallen Norquist cried, "was closing Indiana for business!" Which is to say, he was governing.
Democratic executives, however, can envision a much more synergistic working relationship with the rest of their party. "With Congress now in the hands of Democrats," says Dreier, "the Democratic governors will have willing partners in trying to help the governors solve the problems of education, housing, the environment, and so on." Congressional Democrats, both ideologically in sync with their statehouse partners and cognizant of the political benefits their successes make possible (today's governor could be tomorrow's president), can use their control of the federal purse to further, not impede, the priorities of their gubernatorial allies.
That vastly brightens the prospects for the new crop of Democratic governors, three of whom in particular appear candidates for actually using their states as "laboratories of democracy." Ohio's Ted Strickland wants to reinvent a battered economy, New York's Eliot Spitzer is determined to tame a cumbersome bureaucracy, and Massachusetts' Deval Patrick is shaping the nation's first near-universal health-care system.
And maybe, with a dash of congressional cooperation and a bit of luck, they can actually deliver.
In 1942, the economist Joseph Schumpeter introduced the concept of "creative destruction," capitalism's chaotic process of crushing established companies and replacing them with nimbler, more temporally attuned competitors. In Ohio, however, Schumpeter's logic has broken down. As the Toledo Blade reported, since 2000, Ohio's "businesses eliminated 216,100 manufacturing jobs, 21 percent of its base. But they hatched a mere 40,000 jobs for a net loss of 176,100." Destruction has eclipsed the creativity.
Into this sad story strides Governor-elect Ted Strickland. …