In Arizona's Conservatism, Signs of What's to Come

One of the big themes I've been talking about for a long time is how the 2010 elections could move state government away from the ...
by | April 21, 2010

One of the big themes I've been talking about for a long time is how the 2010 elections could move state government away from the political center. Some Democratic governors in Republican states are likely to be replaced by Republicans. Some Republican governors in Democratic states are likely to be replaced by Democrats. Moderate governors who have checked the impulses of either conservative or liberal legislators will be gone.

In Arizona, you already can see what this process will look like.

For a combination of reasons, conservatives are in complete control of Arizona. In legislative races, moderate Republicans have lost primaries to more conservative candidates over the years. Democrats expected to make substantial gains in the legislature in 2008, but with Arizona's own John McCain as the Republican nominee, the G.O.P. solidified its majorities. Then, Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano left for the Obama administration, making Jan Brewer, a conservative Republican, the state's top executive. 

During her six years in office, Napolitano vetoed lots of bills from the Republican-controlled legislature. The decisions that the state made always had to be the product of difficult deals. For most hot-button issues, the solution was not to act at all.

Now? In the last week, Brewer has signed legislation to allow Arizonans to carry concealed weapons without a permit. She's deciding whether to sign legislation that would target illegal immigrants in ways that no state has tried to date. Plus, the Arizona House cast a preliminary vote to require presidential candidates to submit their birth certificates to the Secretary of State, legislation inspired by conspiracy theories about President Obama's place of birth. Previously, no legislative chamber in any state had passed a similar bill. Last month, Arizona became the first state to eliminate the Children's Health Insurance Program, which will remove health insurance coverage from 47,000 poor children (the state also is cutting hundreds of thousands of adults off Medicaid).

Whether you think these are good moves or bad moves by Arizona will, of course, depend on your ideological inclinations. My point is only that they're different than what was happening under Napolitano and different than what most states have been doing.

One of the ironies of the last 20 years or so is that while politics has increasingly become dominated by the ideological edges of the parties, policy outcomes often have remained stubbornly centrist. As long as both parties retain some control over the policy-making process, it doesn't really matter how far from the ideological middle the party faithful become. The only two possibilities for lawmakers are to do nothing or to approve compromises.

You can understand what I mean by thinking about federal legislation. The major domestic initiatives of the last three presidents almost all were the product of major ideological compromises. I'd describe welfare reform, No Child Left Behind, the Medicare prescription drug benefit, the stimulus and health care reform that way.

What's different in Arizona is that ever since Napolitano left, Democrats have had no ability to force compromises. Moderate Republicans don't either. Finally, political polarization is affecting policy outcomes.

It's entirely possible that we'll be able to say the same thing about Wyoming, Oklahoma, Kansas and Tennessee after this fall. It's also possible that Democrats -- and perhaps liberal Democrats -- will have exclusive power over California, Hawaii, Vermont, Rhode Island, Minnesota and Connecticut.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer

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