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HOW HE SEES IT Conversions on the road to reality

Tuesday, March 1, 2005

In the wake of the 2004 election, there has been much talk about how the American Left lacks policy prescriptions to solve America's problems. As President Bush's political guru Karl Rove asserted last week, "conservatism is the dominant political creed in America" while progressivism is lost at sea.
But is this conventional wisdom really true? Not if you look at the handful of Republican politicians who have recently headed back to their states from Washington to serve as governor. Once reliable conservative ideologues inside the Capital Beltway, these governors have undergone a conversion on their road to America's heartland. And they threaten the conservative movement more seriously than any Democrat in America.
In the South, for instance, two GOP congressmen-turned-governors have abandoned their past willingness to gut Medicaid funding, and are now raising hell about budget shortfalls. Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher told Fox News last month that he's "very concerned about any cuts" to the low-income health care program, apparently forgetting how his party tried to cut Medicaid repeatedly when he was a House member. Similarly, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, a hard-core economic conservative in Congress, actually proposed raising cigarette taxes to increase Medicaid funding.
In two other "red" states, this same sort of reversal occurred on tax policy. Alabama Gov. Bob Riley last year ignored his votes in Congress for deficit-expanding tax cuts, and instead pushed a referendum to raise taxes on his state's top income earners to deal with budget shortfalls. In Indiana, Gov. Mitch Daniels is calling for an income tax increase on his state's top income earners. This is the same Mitch Daniels who, as President Bush's budget director from 2001 to 2003, attacked congressional Democrats who proposed doing the very same thing.
For their efforts, these governors have been met with derision from conservative ideologues insulated from the real world in Washington. Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist of the Americans for Tax Reform has attacked Daniels as a traitor to the conservative cause in Daniels' hometown newspaper. Riley was hammered by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey and his corporate front group in Washington, who held rallies to ridicule the Alabama governor.
The criticism, of course, is not surprising. The ferocity, however, is. Republicans are, after all, the party whose first guiding principle is Ronald Reagan's famous "11th Comandment": Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.
But these governors are not seen as mere turncoats to be ignored -- they are seen as mortal threats to conservatism itself. Because by embracing progressive policies during their states' budget crises, they are exposing conservatism as ill-equipped to deal with real-world challenges.
They are, in effect, publicly admitting that while the mantra of tax cuts and less government makes for nice rhetoric in Washington, it is virtually useless in solving concrete problems.
So the next time you hear a pundit blathering on about how the left in America is lost, and the conservatives have everything figured out, remember those Republican governors who came from Washington. They show just how wrong conventional wisdom can be.
X David Sirota is a fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services