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The Liberal Rout: Why Conservatives Are Winning in the 1990s

Wednesday, January 1, 1997

There is a story the late publisher Henry Regnery liked to tell about one of his first conversations with Russell Kirk, the founder of postwar American conservative thought and a native of Michigan. In 1952, Kirk submitted a major book manuscript to Regnery and suggested that it be titled The Conservative Rout. Regnery talked him out of it. That title seemed too gloomy, too fatalistic. What if conservative ideas made a comeback? Would not The Conservative Mind be a better title in the long run? And so it was.

Were Kirk and Regnery alive today, they might revisit the word "rout" -- and this time apply it instead to liberalism. Apologists for the most liberal ideals of FDR, JFK, and LBJ are in serious retreat on the eve of the 21st century.

GOP Governors are balancing budgets, cutting taxes, and making government more responsive.

Bill Clinton had enough liberal credentials to win the nomination (and renomination) of the Democratic party. But his re-election in 1996 can hardly be viewed as a victory for the left wing of his party. The Man from Hope remains at best a "plurality president," having failed to win a majority of votes in both 1992 and 1996. After Democrats finished off the champagne on Election Night last November, they were no doubt sobered by the realization that, beyond the Oval Office, the Democratic Party is now much weaker than it was in November 1992 when Bill Clinton was first elected. The composition of the nation's legislatures and governorships shows why: In 1997, there are 11 more GOP senators than in 1992, prior to Clinton's election. What's more, Americans returned a more conservative Senate to Washington than occupied that chamber during the last Congress. Not since the 1920s have so many Republicans filled the U.S. Senate.

Americans expressed their confidence in most of the conservative freshmen from the Class of '94 by sending them back to the House. At press time, several elections were undecided, but this much is clear: Today there are about 50 more House Republicans than in 1992. Only twice since the onset of the New Deal (in 1947-49, during the 80th Congress, and during the last Congress) have there been more GOP representatives on Capitol Hill.

Today there are 14 more Republican governors than in 1992. More Americans are represented by Republican governors than ever before in our nation's history -- 192 million. That's 74 percent of the American people. In state senates, there are 172 more Republicans today than in 1992. And in the lower chambers of state legislatures, there are 228 more Republicans today than in 1992. These numbers suggest that a major realignment of American politics is underway. Even before the votes were counted, New York Times reporter R. W. Apple remarked, "No matter who wins the presidency on Tuesday, no matter who gains or loses control of Congress, the returns, like the conduct of candidates great and small these many months, will confirm the nation's drift to the right."

So what of President Clinton's re-election? Two factors helped the silver-tongued Arkansan retain control of the White House, and both have to do with the conservative temper of the 1990s. The first concerns Bill Clinton's political instincts and his skill as a campaigner. In response to the 1994 elections -- a debacle for liberal Democrats across the nation -- Clinton recast himself to fit the Zeitgeist and campaigned on the premise that "the era of Big Government is over." Sounding positively Reaganesque, he offered the most conservative rhetoric of any Democratic president this century. (One wonders whether Clinton has recently graced the walls of the Oval Office with portraits of Grover Cleveland and Martin Van Buren -- the only Democratic presidents in history who both preached and practiced the virtues of a limited federal government.)

With the help of consultant Dick Morris and a bevy of polls and focus groups, Clinton succeeded in marketing himself as a centrist considerably to the right of his liberal friends and his liberal past. He ran on such conservative themes as deficit-cutting, targeted tax cuts, job growth, welfare reform, school uniforms, youth curfews, and more cops on the street. An English observer recently mused, "If you imagine a president committed to a balanced budget, welfare reform, and a stronger death penalty, would you say conservatism was losing?"

The second factor has little to do with Bill Clinton himself, yet it played an enormous role in his re-election. Few commentators noticed, but the campaign themes of 1996 were determined largely by politics and policies in the states, where conservative ideas have long been ascendant. It was the achievements of the nation's 32 Republican governors and their legislatures, not those of the White House, that made a majority of Americans believe the nation was on the right track. Their record of reform helped Bill Clinton win re-election. The Man from Hope adroitly, if shamelessly, took credit for the many impressive accomplishments of GOP administrations from Albany to Sacramento, and from Lansing to Austin.

Cutting Taxes and Spending

One of the critical debates before American voters in the 1990s has been the proper size and scope of government at every level. All sides have reached a consensus that government should serve citizens better, limit its role in society, and give taxpayers more value for their dollar.

Quietly, without fanfare, Republican governors and legislatures beyond the glare of Washington politics have been balancing budgets, cutting taxes, and making government more responsive to the people. Over the past four years, while Bill Clinton has consistently refused to support the Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution, every GOP governor has been submitting a balanced budget to his or her legislature on an annual basis.

In just one year, Connecticut governor John Rowland turned a $174-million deficit into a $74-million surplus. Ohio governor George V. Voinovich has held state spending to its lowest rate of growth in four decades, and turned a $1.5-billion deficit in 1991 into an $800-million surplus. Similarly, in Minnesota and Michigan, respectively, Governor Arne Carlson and I each inherited deficits of $1.8 billion. Governor Carlson not only erased that deficit; he turned it into a $824-million surplus for 1996. In Michigan, we transformed a $1.8-billion deficit into a surplus of more than $1 billion. Today Michigan's "rainy day" fund is among the largest in the nation.

At the same time they were submitting balanced budgets, most GOP governors and legislatures were -- guess what? -- cutting taxes. Liberal Democrats have ignored an overwhelming body of evidence that tax cuts help create new jobs and fill the treasury at the same time. Yet the examples are legion. In recent years, many governors have seen significant growth in jobs after enacting significant tax cuts, including Massachusetts's William Weld, New Jersey's Christine Todd Whitman, Pennsylvania's Tom Ridge, Virginia's George Allen, Idaho's Phil Batt, and Arizona's Fife Symington.

Since 1991, Michigan has cut taxes more often than any other state -- 21 times. These 21 tax cuts have resulted in a savings of $6.5 billion to taxpayers. The average family of four has been able to keep $2,000 more in their wallets every year; it is they, not government bureaucrats, who get to choose whether to save or spend the money.

The economic results of these tax cuts have been nothing short of spectacular. They have helped create more than a half-million new jobs. Remember that Michigan used to be thought of as a Rust Belt state suffering high unemployment rates. From the late 1970s to the early 1990s -- in fact, for 192 months in a row -- our unemployment rate was consistently above the national average. By contrast, it has been at or below the national average for the past 34 consecutive months. As of this writing, Michigan's unemployment rate has been below 5 percent every month in 1996, while the U.S. rate has hovered above 5 percent. That makes Michigan's unemployment rate for 1996 the best since 1969. The Michigan experience shows that significant tax reductions do help cut the deficit, balance the budget, and turbocharge the economy.

Last September, the Cato Institute released a study that compared the 10 states that raised taxes the most during the 1990s with the 10 states that cut taxes the most. Just what were the economic and fiscal results of these "laboratories of democracy"?

The 10 tax-cutting states economically outperformed the 10 tax-hiking states. Measured in current dollars, the economies of the tax cutters grew by 33 percent from 1990 to 1995, while the economies of the tax hikers lagged behind, with 27 percent growth. More striking is the contrast in job growth. The top 10 tax-cutting states gained 1.84 million new jobs between 1990 and 1995, while the top 10 tax-hiking states created zero net new jobs over that same period.

Expanding economies, robust job growth, rising personal income, vigorous population growth, historically large "rainy day" funds -- no wonder Clinton could claim that it looks like morning in America. But odds are that it is only dawning brightly if you live in a fiscally conservative state. Bill Clinton owes his re-election in part to the policies of these GOP governors.

Regulatory Reform

The top tax-cutting states are doing relatively well, no doubt about it. But the United States is currently experiencing its slowest economic recovery this century. Bureaucratic strangulation is a major factor in the long-term slowdown of the national economy. In 1965, there were about 17,000 pages in the Federal Register. Just since 1992, the volume of federal rules and regulations has grown by 231,000 pages -- the most prodigious growth rate since Jimmy Carter. It appears that Messrs. Clinton and Gore are not so much reinventing government as simply inventing it -- and doing so prodigiously. Richard Vedder at Washington University's Center for the Study of American Business estimates that government regulations now cost our nation a staggering $1.3 trillion each year.

Most governors believe government should be less intrusive. Many are aggressively attacking unnecessary rules and regulations wherever they can. In California last year, Governor Pete Wilson abolished some 4,000 useless and outdated rules and regulations. In Kansas, Governor Bill Graves imposed a six-month moratorium on new government regulations, then eliminated 530 of the most burdensome and obsolete ones. In the past year, we in Michigan have rescinded more than 2,000 rules and regulations.

With Republicans in control of the 105th Congress and GOP governors at the helm in about two-thirds of the states, the Clinton administration will be thwarted in its attempts to promulgate new rules and regulations. GOP governors support the efforts of congressional Republicans to reform the federal regulatory system and impose cost-benefit analysis before the Federal Register grows any larger.

Welfare Reform

The so-called Great Society turned out to be neither great nor good for society. By the 1990s, it was clear that the federal welfare system was discouraging work, financial independence, and the formation of families. Yet Bill Clinton twice vetoed welfare reform and held his nose last August when he signed the third bill Congress sent to his desk. Four years into his presidency, Clinton had done little to fulfill his 1992 campaign pledge "to end welfare as we know it" -- but he was happy to take credit for the success of the states while masking his party's hostility to transferring power out of Washington.

Shortly after Clinton signed the welfare-reform bill, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala told the New Yorker magazine, "Everyone agrees that [Clinton] signed [welfare reform] and he has to fix it, and to fix it we need to elect a Democratic president and Democratic Congress in 1996, so we can repeal the parts of the bill we hate."

There's more than a little irony to the fact that for three years, Clinton talked the talk of welfare reform while refusing to sign a bill. New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan aptly observed of Clinton's decision to sign this legislation 14 weeks before the election, "If it were 14 weeks after the election, he'd say no."

Once again, the governors deserve the credit for leading the welfare-reform movement. They understood that the welfare system could not be transformed unless it was linked to personal responsibility and accountability. Throughout the 1990s, many governors have applied for and received federal waivers to loosen Washington's grip on the welfare system. Waivers are cumbersome, bureaucratic procedures, but they have at least enabled the states to begin finding innovative solutions to the social and economic problems caused by dependency. The results have been dramatic. States with Republican governors for at least the last four years have already seen the number of people receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) decrease by an average of 16 percent since 1993.

No GOP governor has garnered more national attention for his welfare reforms than Wisconsin's Tommy Thompson. Building on the highly successful "Work Not Welfare" program, his administration in 1996 launched "Wisconsin Works," or "W-2." This program requires welfare recipients to participate in employment and job training to receive benefits. Since Wisconsin implemented these and other reforms, its welfare caseload has decreased by 33 percent.

Common-sense welfare reforms have also been implemented by, among others, New Hampshire's Steve Merrill, Connecticut's John Rowland, New York's George Pataki, Illinois's Jim Edgar, Iowa's Terry Branstad, Tennessee's Don Sundquist, Mississippi's Kirk Fordice, Texas's George W. Bush, Utah's Mike Leavitt, and Arizona's Fife Symington.

Our experience with welfare reform in the Great Lakes State has also been encouraging. Michigan requires welfare recipients to seek work, receive job training, or perform community service for at least 20 hours a week. Since we implemented our program "To Strengthen Michigan Families" in 1992:

  • The AFDC caseload has dropped for 30 consecutive months;
  • The number of welfare recipients in Michigan has fallen to its lowest level in a quarter-century;
  • 101,652 families no longer receive cash benefits because they are working and earning paychecks;
  • Almost one in three Michigan welfare recipients on AFDC is working; nationally, only one in 11 is working. In our state, moreover, about half of all two-parent families on welfare are working.

The success of Michigan and other states shows that the 104th Congress was right to try to get Washington out of the way of welfare reform. Some, like Virginia under Governor Allen, have passed time limits for benefits so that welfare cannot become a way of life. Others, like California, require beneficiaries to stay in school and earn educational credentials, a crucial step toward achieving independence. Still others, such as Massachusetts under Governor Weld, have ended the financial incentive to have additional children while on welfare by requiring teen mothers under the age of 18 to live at home. Whatever the particulars of reform, the 50 laboratories of democracy will continue to find innovative solutions to help the poor help themselves. Washington should just stay out of the way.

Education Reform

As William Bennett and Lamar Alexander have frequently noted, education in America is the constitutional responsibility of our states, the social responsibility of our communities, and the moral responsibility of our families. Our nation does not need a $31-billion federal Department of Education. This agency contributes 7 percent of the funding of our nation's schools while mandating about 50 percent of the paperwork. And for all that meddling, not one bureaucrat in the Education Department teaches our students to be more competent in math, science, English, history, and government. It is time to return the money held hostage in Washington to the states and their citizens. After all, it's their money.

The national leaders in education reform have been the states, not Washington bureaucrats. More parental involvement, higher standards, greater discipline, increased autonomy for teachers, more choice for students and their families -- these are the keys to improving our public schools and making them the best in the world.

Governors have long understood that. They have led the burgeoning charter-school movement, which is injecting competition into the nation's public schools. Now there are hundreds of these innovative schools around the nation -- including 116 in California, 114 in Arizona, and 74 in Michigan. In my state alone, charter public schools are serving more than 10,400 students. And contrary to union propaganda, they are not elitist. In Michigan, for example, one in every three charter public schools was founded by African-American educators; more than 50 per cent of the enrollment in charter schools is African American or at-risk students. As a result, charter public schools serve more than twice the minority population that conventional public schools do. Michigan's first charter school, in the heart of Detroit, was so popular that its 300 slots drew more than 5,000 applications. One child was so eager to be admitted that he applied more than 100 times!

Even more sweeping plans have been enacted in Wisconsin and Ohio, giving students in the lowest performing and least disciplined schools the opportunity to choose better schools for their children. Bureaucrats and special interests can no longer keep our nation's children chained to a monopoly of mediocrity. The states will be in the vanguard of educational liberation, ensuring educational options for all families.

Free the States!

Observers of all political persuasions agree: Liberalism is suffering a rout. America is choosing to go right and return to its conservative roots. In the 1990s, Republican governors have worked closely with legislatures to spearhead needed reform. Year after year, it is the governors who are slashing deficits and balancing the budget; who are cutting taxes and eliminating red tape; who are restoring personal responsibility to and reducing dependency on the welfare system; who are making public schools more accountable to parents and their communities.

Morning in America? Odds are, it's only dawning brightly if you live in a fiscally conservative state.

In 1996, Bill Clinton was able to parlay the governors' accomplishments into a successful re-election bid. But more enduring than any cleverly run campaign is the legacy of state-driven reform. For the foreseeable future, the domestic reforms that are most needed and most attuned to the conservative temper of the American people will continue to come from the nation's governors, working with their respective legislatures. They have a proven record of success. And they are more accountable to the people than any Beltway bureaucrat. Thus it is critical that Washington do the right thing for our nation.

Our message is: Free the states! Unshackle us from overweening federal control. Let us in the states govern as the U.S. Constitution meant us to govern. This is already beginning to happen, of course. During the past two years, the Republican-led 104th Congress ushered in a new spirit of cooperation with the governors and began the process of returning power to the states. All indications are that the Republican-led 105th Congress will try to devolve even more power, consistent with the Tenth Amendment.

But what of the Democrat in the White House? Although Bill Clinton is a former governor and has lately learned to speak like a conservative, deep down he probably has little sympathy for the states and their drive for reform. Therefore those of us beyond the Beltway dare not take devolution for granted. We know all about the false starts of the past.

In 1935, when the New Deal was taking root, Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis told a top aide to Roosevelt, "This is the end of this business of centralization, and I want you to go back and tell the president that we are not going to let this government centralize everything. It's come to an end. As for your young men, you call them together and tell them to get out of Washington -- tell them to go home, back to the states. That is where they must do their work."

Amen to that.

Let us hope that enough people in the Washington establishment see the wisdom of these words. Let us also hope that, during the presidential campaign four years from now, there will be candidates who do not merely speak like conservatives, but who truly believe in conservative ideas and know how to implement conservative policies consistent with the best in our nation's tradition.