F.A.Q.: How much will the governors' cost-cutting cost?

Chris Christie. (Via hobokencondos flickr stream.)
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A conversation with Andrew Rice and Steve Kornacki about the 2012 elections.

Andrew Rice: Proposed: That the 2010 elections will eventually come to be seen as the turning point for Obama's reelection, but not for the reason commonly supposed. Republicans in the House will not exactly reproduce the mistakes of 1995. Instead, the key will turn out to be the election of those 30-some Republican governors. Most people read the election of Republicans in Ohio, Florida and other swing states as a worrisome sign for Obama, and it would be if the election were to be held in 2011.

But by 2012, with most of those governors facing huge budget gaps, prohibitions against deficit spending, and every incentive to make deep service cuts early in their terms so as to get the pain out of the way, many people in those states will have more than their fill of Republican austerity. In a way, it will be the same dynamic that you see in Britain right now, where the idea of cutting is popular until it starts actually hurting. Obama's brand of milder fiscal responsibility starts to look palatable in comparison, people in the battleground states are tired of sacrifice, and the Republican candidate doesn't help himself by muttering in every debate about debt voters are handing to their children.

Obama wins the electoral college by a comfortable margin, Republicans hold the House, losing only a handful of vulnerable, Dan Quayle-type seats, and they retake the Senate, as Dems lose seats in North Dakota, Montana, Nebraska and Virginia. After hanging on by the thinnest of margins in Massachusetts, everyone starts watching Scott Brown's movements very closely.

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Any debate?

Josh Benson: I don't find this proposition particularly debatable, but I'd pick nits, like maybe with the notion that it's going to be primarily a backlash against the Republican governors that propels Obama to reelection. I think as far as the governors are concerned, it's going to be more about the opportunity cost to Obama's opponent of having lots of them too busy with their own misery to spend any political capital trying to win a presidential election.

Also, Boehner's always going to end up being the easier national target for Dems, even if he continues to put a civil veneer on his opposition to the White House, no? He has internalized the Lessons of Newt and all that, but the agenda he's charged with prosecuting is going to turn out to have been much more attractive as a rallying cry against the Democratic hegemon than it will be in practice.

Andrew: Ah, well I thought my governor-centric theory was actually my original contribution to the debate, so that's a big nit to pick! I actually am not sure how much the Dems are going to be able to demonize Speaker Boehner. Yes, he's got a highly conservative caucus that would probably be more than happy to run roughshod over him and Go Too Far, but the clarifying effect of governance is muddled by the fact that the Dems control the Senate. Look at what happened with the health care repeal. They passed it, the Senate said, uh huh, whatever, there was a brief, base-mollifying burst of attention, but no consequences for the Republicans because nothing actually happened, or was ever expected to.

Obviously, there are some things they can and probably will do, like staging some austerity brinksmanship over the debt limit, and maybe that will be the turning point the DC press corps is building it up to be. But I tend to think the next two years is going to be a little like the Murray-Ferrer semifinal: a lot of long rallies, lobbing bills back and forth, as each side waits for the other to commit an unforced error.

Josh: Um. Steve?

Steve Kornacki: Well ... Trying to think of the most hated governors in recent memory and what the presidential outcome was. Clinton won N.J. in '92 by three points (four years after Bush carried it by 13 over Dukakis), even as NJ was in the midst of an anti-Florio tax revolt. However, by Nov. '92, Florio had emerged from the worst of it. He was still unpopular, but his approval was near 40 percent. Two years earlier, it had been 18 percent. Maybe if Clinton-Bush had been in 1990, he would have been more of a drag. I dunno. Gaston Caperton in W.V. broke a no-new-taxes pledge and dropped to under 30 percent in the polls in 1991, but Clinton still won the state by 13 points in '92 (and Caperton was reelected then too, under some weird circumstances).

Lowell Weicker was hated for imposing an income tax in CT in the early '90s, but he was an (I), so I don't think that tells us anything. Evan Mecham was impeached in AZ in early '88—but Bush carried the state with ease that fall. Kerry won CT handily in 2004, just after Rowland went to jail. But it's a blue state—no surprise there (plus Jodi Rell had an 80-or-so percent approval rating when she took over). Kerry underperformed in N.J. in 2004—biggest increase in Bush's performance between '00 and '04. You could argue that that was McGreevey-related, but I doubt it, since the Dems had no problem winning the governorship in '05. I think it was more of a 9/11 thing.

Josh: What about the Boehner question? Or is that not even relevant in a presidential year, particularly one in which we're likely to see someone like Sarah Palin sucking up a great deal of the oxygen on the Republican side?

Steve: I go back and forth on the Boehner thing. His basic blandness is definitely a great thing for the G.O.P. He'll just never be the target Newt was, and he'll avoid stepping in a lot of minefields. And yeah, the Senate gives him a great excuse. My only thought is: 2010 showed that there's an incentive for G.O.P. backbenchers and random cranks back home to claim that their leaders are selling out conservatism. I could see some backbenchers making defunding healthcare (or whatever) a litmus-test issue—something worth shutting the government down over. And if they then got cover from Rush, Beck, Palin, Erik Erikson etc., then I don't know what Boehner does. I'm inclined to think this won't happen, but I'm not sure.

Agreed, though, with the basic analysis of '12. Obama wins, House stays G.O.P. (not even Nixon '72 or Reagan '84 had coattails) and Senate flips (and Chuck becomes minority leader). One disagreement: Brown wins comfortably in Mass.

Andrew: To your point on the governors, I wonder if looking for specific examples from history is going to tell us much, because I don't think that (at least in my lifetime) we've ever faced a situation quite like this, with dozens of states simultaneously facing enormous deficits necessitating massive austerity measures, and with, simultaneously, such a large new crop of governors all from the same party. (Maybe we could look at 1982?) It goes to the issue of nationalizing the austerity debate. The cases of say Mecham and Rowland are not applicable, I don't think, because it's unlikely that many voters are going to punish the presidential candidate of one party just based on the fact that their governor of the same party is a crook. But look at the first two examples you cited: Florio and Caperton. Putting the issue of party aside, breaking their no-new-taxes pledges was politically toxic to them, and in the next presidential election, the defining issue was: an incumbent breaking a no-new-taxes pledge. If the coming state-level austerity measures prove to be as unpopular now as raising taxes was then, what do you think the result is going to be for a Republican candidate who, it seems clear, is going to be running on a policy of lower taxes and budget cutting?

Steve: Yeah, I don't think any of those examples I cited tells us much. And when you think of the early '80s, the climate just changed so dramatically between '82 and '84—by then, the new govs elected in '82 were (just like Reagan) pretty popular. With Caperton and Florio (and even Weicker), I think the tax stuff only really mattered because the economy was so bad. I bet they all would have been fine if they'd raised taxes (or, in Weicker's case, imposed a new tax) with the economy humming. There was no tax revolt when all of those states did upper-income tax hikes in the mid-'00s. So I'm not sure voters will really differentiate between state level austerity and national economic conditions. In other words, as long as the economy is struggling, austerity will be unpopular, and so will Obama. And if it improves, Obama will be fine, and so will Chris Christie and Scott Walker.

Josh: There's one other minor thing to consider: The budget-meany narrative about the Republican governors may be somewhat complicated by the fact that some putatively liberal Democratic governors, like, say, Andrew Cuomo, will have been behaving in precisely the same way.

Steve: Idea for column: Why only a Jerry Brown-Chris Christie unity ticket can save America in 2012.

Josh: Finally bridging the divide between vegetarians and enthusiastic carnivores. Brilliant!

Andrew: We'll call it the Pushmi-Pullyu Party.

Josh: I think we're done here.