If we're already down the tubes as a country -- as I argued -- because we face an irreversible economic decline that we don't have the will and the ability as a country to confront,* then what does it mean to be elected the governor of a state?
It means you will face irresolvable conflicts requiring that you cut services, which means passing the buck to municipalities (schools) and health care providers (hospitals), and that you slight and reduce the larger projects -- airports, trains, education (particularly minority education) -- that are required to retain our competitive edge. We will soon be a second-class nation (which we already are in essential ways -- e.g., health care, transportation, quality of life, education) even as we toot our exceptionalism.
So people get elected, particularly as governors, and immediately their popularity plummets. In the 2010 elections, Republicans gained landslide victories across the country - just as Democrats had experienced landslide victories two and four years earlier.
Michigan -- a state in deep trouble -- elected Republican Rick Snyder governor to replace a Democrat. According to a March poll in the Detroit Free Press, Snyder's approval rating dropped from 59 percent favorability in January to 44 percent. In February, he presented his budget plan.
This scenario is being repeated in state after state, right now concentrated in the Middle West: In Wisconsin, Republican Scott Walker won a decisive victory in November 2010. In March, a Rasmussen survey found that the new Republican governor was rated positively by 43 percent of likely voters (this was after that state's public unions protest). In Ohio, Republican John Kasich won in the last election and now, less than six months later, several polls found his support at 40 percent or lower.
Democrats are making hay over these poll numbers. They shouldn't. Because eventually they will get elected, and the public will turn on them just as rapidly. Keep in mind the strange story of action actor-politician Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger was elected in California to replace Democrat Governor Gray Davis - who was recalled by the electorate in 2003. Schwarzenegger was re-elected in 2006. In 2010, his last year in office, Schwarzenegger actually exceeded Davis' unpopularity when Davis was recalled - 71 percent disapproval to 70 percent. (In 2010, reversing national trends, a Democrat was elected to replace Schwarzenegger - who wasn't running.)
The governors of Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin - and of many other states -- are trying to keep sinking ships afloat by moving deck chairs from one side to the other. And it can't be done. Certainly not without throwing a lot of ballast overboard. Certainly not without cutting services drastically. Certainly not without passing major costs along to local taxpayers -- who are the people who elected them. The Times wrote, "The state budget squeeze is fast becoming a city budget squeeze, as struggling states around the nation plan deep cuts in aid to cities and local governments that will almost certainly result in more service cuts, layoffs and local tax increases."
Oh, some governors are gathering praise -- Chris Christy in New Jersey and Andrew Cuomo in New York are two. But their shit has only just begun to hit the fan. The larger picture is that our states are becoming like banana republics - where administrations are violently overturned (in our case, the violence is electoral) as a maddened public see-saws from party to party seeking a miracle.
* The biggest driver of our burgeoning deficit is health care -- which we and our leaders cannot recognize (we like instead to refer to "entitlements," as though only Medicare is experiencing out-of-control acceleration of costs) - and which we thus have no ideas for remedying. "How would we change our heath care," we screech. "Our system of private doctors is the only way to deliver health care," even though we are the only country in the world to approach health care this way. No politician can contradict this belief, if any even wanted to.