If you think it is Rep. Paul Ryan’s gutting of Medicare that is pulling the Republicans down, you need to think bigger. The House Budget Committee chairman’s proposal to convert Medicare into a private insurance-voucher plan is indeed a political calamity for the GOP, as the results of last week’s congressional special election in Upstate New York showed. But it’s far from the only disaster that the party has visited upon itself.
For even as Republicans have imperiled themselves on the national level, they also seem to be committing political hara-kiri in one statehouse after the next. Republican governors who took office this year or last — the ones as determined as Ryan to do a wholesale rewrite of America’s social contract — have approval ratings that we normally associate with strains of bacteria. What’s more, they’re tanking in many of the swing states that will be key in next year’s presidential election.
In Florida, only 29 percent of voters told the Quinnipiac pollsters last week that they approved of Gov. Rick Scott’s five-month tenure in office, during which Scott has endeavored to slash business taxes — already among the nation’s lowest — while also reducing spending on schools and cutting care for the developmentally disabled. He also tried to end unions’ ability to collect dues through an automatic paycheck deduction (a proposal that lost when some Cuban American Republican state senators opposed it on the grounds that they detected a whiff of Fidel Castro’s suppression of independent unions). A stunning 57 percent of Floridians disapprove of Scott, and by a margin of 54 percent to 29 percent, the state’s voters deem the budget that Scott and the Republican-controlled legislature enacted to be “unfair” to people like them.
Things are looking just as bad for the GOP’s new crop of Midwestern governors. In Wisconsin, Scott Walker, whose proposal to curtail collective bargaining for public employees triggered a nationally watched eruption of protest, would now lose in a recall election to either of two Democrats: former senator Russ Feingold, whom he trails by 10 percentage points (52 percent to 42 percent, in a survey by Public Policy Polling released last week), and former Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett (whom he defeated for governor just last November) by a margin of 50 percent to 43 percent.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, unlike Walker and Scott, is a seasoned political veteran, but in his first months as governor he has overreached as drastically as they did. In another Public Policy Polling survey last week, Kasich’s approval rating was a bargain-basement 33 percent, while his disapproval rating had risen to 56 percent. Voters in the PPP Ohio poll were asked if they intended to support the referendum likely to appear on this November’s ballot that would repeal the Kasich-backed law sharply limiting collective bargaining rights for public employees. Ohioans said, by a 55 to 35 percent margin, that they’d vote to repeal it.
And so it goes in state after state. In Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder had a 33 percent approval rating, against a 60 percent disapproval rating, in a May survey that also found that 71 percent of Michigan voters thought poorly of his budget cuts to public schools, and more than 60 percent opposed his proposed tax reductions on business. A May survey of New Jersey voters by Fairleigh Dickinson University pollsters found that Gov. Chris Christie’s favorables had slumped to 40 percent, while his unfavorables had risen to 60 percent.
Admittedly, it’s a tough time to be a governor, in an economy in which being a governor means having to whack some popular programs. But the Democratic governors of the nation’s two biggest blue states — California’s Jerry Brown and New York’s Andrew Cuomo — both have approval ratings higher than their disapprovals. In a poll released Wednesday from the Public Policy Institute of California, Brown had a 42 percent approval rating, against a 24 percent disapproval rating; Cuomo, in a Marist poll from May, had 54 percent of New Yorkers calling his tenure either good or excellent, 31 percent fair, and just 6 percent poor — truly astonishing numbers for a govenor in the midst of a recession. In contrast to their GOP counterparts, neither Cuomo nor Brown has proposed stripping public employees of meaningful union representation, though both have sought and obtained cutbacks to public programs. The Los Angeles Times/USC Dornsife poll also shows that Californians support Brown’s plan to retain higher tax rates rather than further decimate public schools.
But the Republican governors — like Ryan and his fellow Republicans in Congress — have pursued a more radical course that sharply disadvantages most Americans. Even worse, they have sought to enact their agendas without warning their constituents. Republicans did not run last year on a platform of ending collective bargaining, slashing school budgets and gutting Medicare — in essence, favoring society’s most powerful at the expense of everyone else — yet that’s precisely what they’ve done since gaining power. That’s not merely bad policy; it’s bad faith — and bad news for Republicans’ electoral prospects.