The GOP's Reform Renaissance

Republican governors are supplying the party with a new campaign playbook, rising to popularity after instituting tough policies

Bobby Jindal - Patrick Semansky AP - banner.jpg

Republicans searching for a positive governing message that doesn't rely exclusively on opposing President Obama need look no further than Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and his landslide reelection on Saturday. Jindal's ambitious government reforms in a state with a reputation for corruption has made him one of the most popular governors in the country, leading to across-the-board Republican dominance in the Pelican State.

Jindal won 66 percent of the vote in an all-party ballot, facing only nominal Democratic opposition. His coattails extended the length of the Louisiana ballot: Democrats didn't even field candidates in four of the seven statewide races. Where they did, the Republican won more than two-thirds of the vote.

The GOP also won its first-ever elected majorities in the state Legislature on Saturday. (Republicans took control of both chambers in the last year, thanks to party-switchers and special elections.) Republicans netted two state House seats and could gain as many as four state Senate seats if all the upcoming runoffs go their way.

It's unusual for an executive to win so convincingly after spending four years taking on entrenched interests. Calling for change and making controversial decisions rarely leads to such popularity. In fact, shaking things up often leads to political trouble, as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker found out upon unveiling an ambitious budget this year.

But Jindal shattered the conventional wisdom, changing nearly every aspect of Louisiana governance in his first term--and he's reaping the rewards. His bold agenda tightened the state's notoriously lax ethics rules, streamlined its inefficient government, provided competition for New Orleans' failing public schools, and cut spending while simultaneously improving services during the tumultuous, post-Hurricane Katrina period, as profiled in a National Review feature story by Jim Geraghty.

Jindal is hardly a lone wolf. He's a crest in a wave of Republican governors proving that tough reforms may cause short-term pain but lead to long-term political gain. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is enjoying his highest approval ratings of his term after averting his state's near bankruptcy by cutting entitlements and taking influential public-sector unions head on. In the latest Quinnipiac poll, 58 percent of Garden State voters approve of his job performance, 15 points higher than President Obama's rating in this solidly Democratic state.

The leader of this pack is Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels who, like Christie, saw his popularity dip in the wake of controversial decisions. He privatized state services, such as the Indiana Toll Road--initially a wildly unpopular move--and ended collective bargaining with public unions to close the state's sizable deficit. He eventually rebounded to win a second term comfortably and maintains that popularity today. Even Scott Walker, who was a national target for Democrats and unions, is seeing his numbers inch upward in Wisconsin, despite state Democrats' efforts to recall him from office.

There is one glaring exception to the trend: Ohio Gov. John Kasich, whose law curbing public workers' collective bargaining, among other budgetary changes, has run into a buzz saw of opposition. A clear majority (57 percent of Ohioans) wants to repeal it, according to a new Quinnipiac poll, and Kasich has one of the lowest gubernatorial approval ratings in the country. Kasich's experience has struck fear in the hearts of Republican political operatives and reflects the policy timidity on the Republican presidential stage.

To wit: When former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney stopped at an Ohio Republican phone bank on Tuesday to support the volunteers, he refused to say whether he backs Kasich's controversial move--only saying it's "up to the people of Ohio." That won't win him a profile in courage and brings his appetite for tackling entitlements into question. It also explains why some Republicans so publicly pined for Christie or Daniels to run--they touched the third rail of politics and lived to tell the tale.

The GOP presidential field is similarly silent on education--a vital issue that conservative governors such as Jindal, Daniels, and Florida's former executive Jeb Bush took the lead on. But when asked about Obama's innovative "Race to the Top" competitive grants during a debate, the candidates sprinted to distance themselves from the plan, which many conservative thinkers embrace. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, in opposing the plan, even said his state "must not surrender control to the federal bureaucracy."

One of the president's vulnerabilities is the perception that he's a weak leader--a direct result of his aversion to taking political risks. He hasn't touted his administration's impressive education reforms for fear of aggravating teacher unions. He punted on his own deficit commission's entitlement plans, preferring to use such cuts as a political cudgel against the GOP. He delegated key elements of his stimulus plan and health care overhaul to Congress.

As Jindal demonstrates, advancing good policies is good politics. The wonky Jindal is far from a natural pol, but his hands-on approach allowed Louisiana to rebound beyond expectations in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. As the Republican front-runner, Romney would be well-advised to take a cue from Jindal instead of worrying whether doing so would become fodder for Democratic attack ads in a general election. It's called leadership, and it's something voters across the political spectrum yearn for.

Image credit: Patrick Semansky/AP

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Josh Kraushaar is the political editor for National Journal.

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