The Cartel Breaks

Ronald Brownstein and Stephanie Czekalinski have a fine article (National Journal, Apr. 13) on the increased partisan-ideological divisions among states. There’s way more ideological and partisan homogeneity within states, and

Across the full range of economic and cultural issues, Democratic and Republican state officials are pulling apart far more than they did as recently as two decades ago. On gun control, gay marriage, immigration, taxes, and participation in President Obama’s health reform law, among other issues, states that lean red and those that lean blue are diverging to an extent that is straining the boundaries of federalism.

The article is vintage National Journal, both in a good sense (well-informed, thorough, judicious) but also in a not-so-good sense. As the title suggests (“How Washington Ruined Governors”), it’s too taken with mainstream, bipartisan, consensual, good-government-from-good-governors to recognize the downside of that mode of federalism—or the upside of the more contentious brand that seems to be on the ascent. E.g., the authors lament that the

widening gap is recasting the role of governors. Well into the 1990s, state executives considered themselves more pragmatic than members of Congress; they regularly shared ideas across party lines and often sought to emerge nationally by bridging ideological disputes. 

Over roughly the final third of the 20th century, … this movement accelerated. State lawmakers converged around a burst of policy innovation that led some to describe the period as a second Progressive Era. From the 1970s through the 1990s, many of the most prominent governors in both parties prided themselves on recombining ideas from left and right on issues such as education, health care, transportation, and welfare.

Yep: that’s the pure form of what I’ve called “cartel federalism” (versus “competitive federalism”), and one of its principal maintenance organizations was indeed the National Governors’ Association. The NGA’s “pragmatic” agenda consisted of three demands on Congress:

  1. Some of us have this here policy experiment. It kind of worked in Nowheresville, and all of us would like to have it. Would you care to buy it?
  2. On second thought, send us more money and leave us alone.
  3. On third thought, without federal standards, there’ll be a ruinous race to the bottom. Please come govern us.

And precisely which policy achievement of this fabulous era would we care to perpetuate—Medicaid Education? Urban development grants? And no, not welfare, either. Alas, it’s not a real question: this stuff perpetuates itself.

Even so, the cartel is crumbling. On a ton of social and economic issues, from gay marriage to health care to fracking, blue and red states are rolling out very different political models, under intensely competitive conditions. Our authors acknowledge that “competition has inspired ambitious activity in both red and blue states”; yet they fret:

[M]any analysts question whether these initiatives really embody the ‘laboratory of democracy’ ideal of state tinkering or rather reflect a centrally directed model in which states, often at the prodding of national interest groups, serially fall in line behind their party’s national agenda. [Former Arizona Governor Bruce] Babbitt expresses a widespread concern that states have diminished their capacity to genuinely innovate because their every choice is framed through the national partisan struggle. ‘The divergences in the laboratory-of-democracy idea ought to grow out of grassroots experience’ in the states, he says. ‘It’s not the case now. It’s a top-down divergence being driven by national ideological arguments. It’s not an experimental model, and it’s not a very productive exercise.’ Rather than ideas rising from the states to Washington, he says, governors are being ‘conscripted and corrupted into the national political debate.’

Speaking of conscription: would this be the same Bruce “Grassroots” Babbitt under whose leadership the U.S. Department of Interior engineered a gargantuan expansion of the Endangered Species Act, with the result that tens of thousands of farmers, ranchers, loggers, and other landowners found their property “conscripted for national zoological use” (as Justice Scalia memorably put it in a terrific dissent, see Babbitt v. Sweet Home Chapter (1995))? Yup, that’s him.

Putting his laboratory bona fides aside, the distinction between pragmatic, bottom-up experimentation and top-down, ideological crusading strikes me as silly. To some, Obamacare is an ideological monstrosity; to others, the embodiment of “best practices” experimentation. To some, “limited government” is an ideological slogan; to others, it’s a prerequisite for good government (as well as a constitutional command). One way to figure out which is which is to see what works; and as near as I can tell, the current crop of governors are perfectly happy—happier, certainly, than some of their let’s-all-agree-to-ask-for-more-money predecessors—to be judges by that standard, by the folks who are in command of that judgment: the voters.

Three cheers for competition.

Reader Discussion

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on April 15, 2013 at 12:54:54 pm

Babbitt was the governor who declared a King holiday in violation of the state constitution after the legislature refused to enact one.

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Image of Keith Waters
Keith Waters
on April 15, 2013 at 13:30:56 pm

More of the States' perspective needs to be re-introduced into the Halls of Congress. And the best way to do that is to repeal the 17th Amendment, letting State Governments select U.S. Senators once again, making them truly representatives of the States.

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on April 15, 2013 at 14:30:02 pm

Babbit was also on Clinton's short list for a Supreme Court vacancy. I think we got Ruth Ginsberg instead.

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Image of jWarrior
on April 15, 2013 at 16:11:00 pm

Some states are trying the Krugman method of more of the same stuff that hasn't worked and others are going a different direction. Illinois is an example of the former, Texas of the latter. Look at their economics and see what's working.

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Bill M
on April 15, 2013 at 17:47:38 pm

I think the Obama administration has forced this stand-off with its intensely vicious wedge politics. They use it as background music to motivate the indifferent national voter to convenient outrage with their qualified push-poll call centers; touting only one side of a contentious issue to motivate support and turnout. The deeper results of the policies and possible unintended consequences get no oxygen with their new vehement converts who move on reciting the one-sided script to the next victim.

The Republicans at the national level have no response to this highly targeted and highly effective process of indoctrination focused on key battleground districts, wedge groups and university students.

Red-states ( that during the election were largely ignored in this process), have had enough conservative critical mass to keep common sense alive; and as laboratories of political and economic innovation are out-performing the bastions of liberalism 2 to 1.

The red-army marches on though as Obama's Super-PAC is shifting its focus to giving him the House and the Senate in 2014 by using these same wedge techniques. No amount of Red State Sovereignty will save us from them if they are successful.

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Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.