Monday, January 15, 2007

Governor Huntsman Pre-Session Question: Photo-op vs. Political Courage

Watching the news Saturday night, it was reiterated to me what a terrible governor we have in Utah. Many Utahns obviously disagree with that position. My concern is not that Governor Huntsman is a bad person, or that his stated policies are all that bad. I think he has some great ideas about education, immigration, and health care. However, my main concern with Governor Huntsman, and the main reason I most likely not be voting for him next year, is that he lacks the political courage to truly stand up for his beliefs. The main reasons for this are: his penchant for photo-op politics; his unwillingness to take on the legislature; and his fear of an ultra-right wing backlash at the Republican caucus/convention/primary next year.

First, Governor Huntsman is too concerned with his public visual image than with how his policies are implemented. The litany of fluffy images (and all-too complicit media stories) is almost endless. Among the more recent and prominent stories: opening car shows; riding in a moto-cross race; playing keyboard with REO Speedwagon (that at least should earn most Utahns disdain) and Brent Brown; and perhaps most ignominiously, adopting children from Third World nations as if he was in Hollywood. My anger with the coverage of these events is the total lack of questions as to what else the Governor of Utah could be focusing on during these times. There have been proposals that Americans should create a government executive whose sole duty is ceremony, like the monarch in Britain or President in India or Israel, thus freeing up time for another person (a prime minister, usually) to concern themselves solely with the operation of governing. Governor Huntsman makes me long for such a system.

However, the better solution would be for Huntsman to stand up to the legislature. There are inherent problems with this solution, though. Utah has, at least for my lifetime, had a very strong legislature and a very weak executive. The legislature routinely spends hours working at cross-purposes with the governor, even when they are the same party. Whether the issue is roads, education, tax reform, etc, they also find ways to disagree vehemently. Usually, the governor is unable to exercise more than a few weak vetoes on a couple message bills, but rarely any spending legislation. Governor Huntsman has upheld this shameful tradition, in place since at least the end of the Matheson administration, during his term. Governor Huntsman’s budget proposal this year is a very progressive document, one that deserves attention, but I am skeptical about its implementation or even discussion due to pre-session comments by legislative leaders, especially with Rep. Greg Hughes blowing it off during almost every interview I have heard. Part of Huntsman’s problem is institutional, with the state constitution giving a lot of power to the state legislature and appropriating comparatively few functions to the Governor. This situation works at cross-purposes with the public’s expectation of executive power. Especially at a time when the President has appropriated unprecedented power to the executive, Utahns have an unrealistic expectation of what the Governor can do. However, I believe, with all of his PR prowess, Huntsman could easily make the case for a more powerful executive branch in Utah, on any issue he wishes to have greater influence.

Huntsman’s unwillingness to fight for his plans, though, is based in the fear of the far right of the Utah Republican party. This wing is controlled by a few very powerful legislators and fund raisers, which could, either publicly or discreetly, put up a candidate against him in the Republican nomination process. The electability of such a candidate is not important, because such challenges in the past have been enough to push incumbent governors running for re-election far enough to the right to satiate the ultra-cons. Again, the past three incumbent governors have had to deal with such challenges, two of three have failed (Huntsman is the exception against Walker), but powerful enough in the convention to remind the incumbent where his or her loyalties lie.

This legislative session will be the crucible for Huntsman. As I mentioned earlier, the 2004 election was a basic difference of opinion. Matheson Jr. based his campaign on the idea that we need to invest in education first, so that economic growth can follow. Huntsman Jr. based his campaign on the opposite, that we must stimulate economic growth so that funds for education can be reliably accrued. Huntsman won; the state economy has produced strong tax revenues and a strong budget surplus for the past two years. I will admit that the first part of Huntsman’s platform has worked to the degree that there is a budget surplus. However, the test of this legislative session is whether he will exercise enough political courage to fight the prevailing legislative opinion of tax cuts before education spending, which the public obviously opposes.

If Huntsman fails in this session, I hope that we can find a strong Democratic alternative to him. Such a candidate must combine the photo-op with political courage and bring the new Western tradition of fiscally-responsible, popular Democratic governors. He must also have the support, financial and political, of a broad base of Utahns in order to win.

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