Kevin McCarthy Is On To Something: Conservatives Need To Take Governing Seriously

Keith Naughton Public Affairs Consultant
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Every conservative worth his or her salt prefers less government and more individual liberty whenever and wherever possible. But there is an odd belief among some conservatives believing competence in governing is unimportant. These conservatives think that if governing is done badly, the public will want less government. The fact is that when conservatives govern badly, the public wants fewer conservatives.

House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy is trying to explain that to Republicans in Congress and this election provided plenty of evidence to prove it. When you look at the results from the races for governor, a pattern emerges: Republicans who were serious about governing and strung together a list of real accomplishments won, and often won handily. Unlike the Senate races, where no Republican won in a strongly Democratic state, several GOP gubernatorial candidates were victorious in deeply liberal bastions. Where Republicans lost, it was generally by small margins.

Consider three governors from states that voted for Obama twice, but were re-elected. Susana Martinez in New Mexico and John Kasich in Ohio breezed to victory while Rick Scott eked out a win most pundits thought was impossible. The one Republican who failed the test of competency, Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, lost badly.

Martinez balanced a state budget that had a $450 million hole courtesy of the odious and overrated Bill Richardson. She engaged in significant improvements to education, reduced business and investment taxes and strengthened laws against public corruption. Martinez accomplished all this with Democratic legislative majorities. Martinez notched a near 15-point victory in a state that Obama won handily.

John Kasich looked to be in serious trouble after he took his first run at Ohio’s public employee unions, but recovered smartly. He eliminated a multibillion deficit without raising taxes, raised education standards and restructured Ohio’s worker training initiatives. Unlike Martinez, Kasich did benefit from a Republican legislature. Kasich won by over 30 points where Obama squeaked out two victories.

Things were not so easy for Rick Scott for several reasons. For one thing, the man is simply a bad politician – ask him and he’ll admit it. Scott had a rough start with some poor staffing decisions and the typical growing pains any private industry executive experiences entering the strange world of bureaucratic state government. But, he focused on bread-and-butter economic issues. In other words, the issues voters care about most. Scott got better at his job, fixed his staff problems and pursued a positive agenda of business development, less regulation, government efficiency and reduced taxes.

Brian Sandoval in Nevada, Rick Snyder and Scott Walker also were able to win re-election in Obama-voting states. Sandoval breezed by over 50-points while Snyder and Walker had much closer contests. Similarly to Martinez, Kasich and Scott, they all were able to piece together major accomplishments facing significant in-state political opposition.

And then there is Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, the only GOP governor to lose – and he lost by a lot (in fact, Corbett is the only incumbent governor in Pennsylvania history to lose re-election). Corbett’s problems were many, but the fact is his accomplishments paled in comparison to his colleagues in other states. Corbett spent his first two years in keep-away mode, assuming that if he did nothing, nobody would have cause to be angry with him. His typical response to reform-minded legislators was that he had no opinion on the issue at hand. That works well in a booming economy where states are flush with resources. But in the threadbare Obama economy tough choices have to be made. Innovation and creative solutions are needed.

In spite of a Republican-majority legislature, Corbett failed to make significant headway on de-regulation, tax reform or on privatizing the state’s liquor stores (astonishingly, Pennsylvania still operates a state-owned retail system for hard alcohol). Even modest attempts to circumscribe the power of the state’s unions, such as paycheck protection or assisting local governments with prevailing wage reform, failed. When Corbett finally realized he needed to move on some kind of agenda, it was too late.

If Corbett had taken governing seriously and taken some risks early in his tenure, he likely would have won. After all, the Pennsylvania GOP gained enough seats in the legislature this year to end up with the party’s biggest majorities in decades – in spite of Corbett’s 10-point loss.

Congressional Republicans should take McCarthy’s advice. Start passing bills, but not as public relations or as red meat for the base. Pass bills that have the support of a clear majority of the American people. Get some bills through that will make a real, positive difference for everyday people – bills that Obama cannot veto. Passing legislation that is signed into law is not “giving” Obama anything. It is putting talk into action. Getting things done got the governors re-elected. And it is not only the first step toward re-electing a Republican Congress, it is also the first step in reclaiming the presidency.