When the Republican governors met here for a couple of days just before Thanksgiving, they gave a classic demonstration of that aphorism, "Where you stand depends on where you sit." In interviews previewing the likely dynamics of the 1982 election, they showed how much their view of President Reagan's economic policy depends on the health--or sickness--of their own state economies.
To Gov. Robert F. List of Nevada, where state gaming revenues are up 14 percent this year and the economy has "felt the recession only in a very limited way," it seems that "Reagan is doing better all the time. He is stronger than ever in the West."
Try telling that to Gov. Victor G. Atiyeh of Oregon. He says it's "getting tougher and tougher" to defend the president. The severe and prolonged nationwide housing slump has brought not a recession, but a depression to Oregon's vital forest products industry. Statewide unemployment, now at 10.6 percent, is projected to jump to 12.5 percent in the next few months.
With revenues for the biennium expected to fall $100 million to $150 million short of estimates, Atiyeh soon will call the legislature into special session. When he left here, he went to the White House to tell the president, "When the federal government cools off inflation, Oregon freezes--and we have to have some help."
Atiyeh is no less a conservative or a Republican loyalist than List. "I support the president in trying to cut both taxes and budget," he says. "But it's a question of timing." Where List says there has been "no real grief" on the first round of cuts in federal aid to Nevada, Atiyeh says the impact in Oregon has been "unbelievable. People don't want big spending programs, but when you have the kind of unemployment we have, they expect the government to help."
The debate between the two westerners has its counterparts all across the country. Energy-rich Sun Belt governors, such as William P. Clements Jr. of Texas and David C. Treen of Louisiana, were cheering the president on, while farm-state governors, such as Robert D. Ray of Iowa, were warning that Reagan's personal popularity does not convince voters that "his policies will help the farm economy."
Even more noticeable was the absence of such governors as John Spellman of Washington, James A. Rhodes of Ohio and William G. Milliken of Michigan. They were struggling to salvage their recession-crippled budgets in emergency legislative sessions, while their counterparts were conferring here.
The reality underlying all of these contrasts is that in this time of tremendous inflation-recession-interest rate pressures, what we have is not one national economy, but 50 different state economies, each going its own direction.
That elementary fact poses a great political challenge to Reagan's economic strategy. The president so far has left no room in his plan for the strains some states face in adjusting to the massive changes his economic policies are generating. Quite the contrary. When he was asked in an interview last week whether he thought it was "at all the responsibility of the federal government to redistribute resources between states that are relatively well off and states that are not," the president said flatly no. "That is up to the states," he said. When someone doesn't like the situation in which he is living, he can "vote with his feet"-- move away, Reagan said.
It was not the first time the administration had suggested that the answer to inequality is to move people, not money, around the country. Earlier, at a meeting of Reagan's advisory commission on federalism, the speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, Benjamin L. Cardin, asked Norman B. Ture, the undersecretary of the Treasury, what he would do about financing government services "in a jurisdiction that has one-fourth the fiscal resources of a neighboring jurisdiction."
"You don't do anything," Ture said. "You decide where you want to live."
It was stunning to hear Ture say that, and it was no less so to hear Reagan say the same thing in the comfort of the Oval Office. Reagan's comments sent shivers through some of the Republican governors--even in the warmth and hospitality of New Orleans.
There are 36 governors' races next year, 16 in states now held by Republicans and 20 now controlled by the Democrats. Reagan pollster Richard B. Wirthlin said here these contests will open "the great hinge" of history to the GOP, by providing "the opportunity for a realignment" that would make it the country's majority party.
If that is true, the Republicans had better hope that the Reagan economic plan delivers more Nevadas than Oregons in the autumn of 1982.