Governing Magazine/February 2004
By Alan Ehrenhalt
The American people have a demonstrated tolerance for fiscal deceit,
as long as it is carried off with a certain amount of style. When
Governor Earl Long pushed through a tax increase in
immediately after winning election on a no-new-tax platform, reporters
asked him how he planned to explain his actions to the people. “It’s
simple,” he replied. “I’ll just tell ‘em Ol’ Earl lied to ‘em. They
won’t mind.” And they didn’t. They reelected him to a second term as
governor and later chose him for Congress.
Earl Long was a special case. Less gifted or brazen governors worry
obsessively about the costs of fiscal deception, and what it might do
to their careers. But they practice it anyway. And they usually get
away with it. In
, where Governor Richard Ogilvie was voted Illinois
out in 1972 for instituting an income tax, every governor since has
won the office on a solemn pledge that no new taxes would be needed.
Most of them have violated that pledge, some within a matter of weeks
or months. None has been unseated on that issue.
Some are less fortunate. Jim Florio won the governorship of New
Jerseyin 1989 while insisting there was no need for a significant tax
increase of any sort. His subsequent decision to push through the
largest tax increase in the state’s history ultimately cost him a
second term (although by a very small margin). In any case, Florio’s
experience did not deter Democratic candidate Jim McGreevey from
making an even stronger anti-tax statement 12 years later, nor did it
deter McGreevey from proposing a big tax increase of his own upon
When it comes to fiscal policy, the American electorate reminds me of
a flock of ostriches I once saw at a wildlife park in
. They Florida
kept coming up to our bus and sucking on the metal railing, hoping it
might be a tasty treat. When it turned out to taste like metal, they
ran away. But soon they were back and trying again. They weren’t smart
enough to remember the flavor of cold aluminum for more than a few
minutes at a time.
Americans are a little brighter than ostriches, but they can behave
in roughly the same way. Candidates run for governor promising low
taxes and an undiminished menu of needed services. Once in office,
they look for ways to backtrack. Usually the voters forget about the
duplicity and reelect them anyway. Occasionally, they get angry and
turn the governor out of office. But in either case, they are nearly
always willing to succumb to the blandishments of the next candidate
who comes along and says that he—unlike all those sleazy politicians
who preceded him—will keep the promises they so blithely repudiated.
I don’t mean this the way it probably sounds. I admire governors and
legislators who are willing to raise the money it takes to support the
level of service that the public expects. I think that Ogilvie’s
income tax helped generate two decades of fiscal solvency and Illinois
capital investment, that Florio made a principled change of policy
under intense pressure from court mandates, and that McGreevey offered
an eminently sensible tax reform program aimed at closing a passel of
corporate tax loopholes that should have been closed a long time ago.
What bothers me is the dance we do every time an election rolls
around, all but demanding that candidates make pledges and commitments
they will be unable to keep, paying only limited attention to what
actually happens when the new administration takes office, and then
returning to start the whole process over again, a few degrees more
cynical but no smarter than when the whole cycle began. When it comes
to fiscal policy, we might as well be a bunch of ostriches sucking on
This brings us to Arnold Schwarzenegger, which I figured would happen
sooner rather than later. To be fair to
’s new governor, his California
campaign this fall was far from the most duplicitous or demagogic of
recent times. Schwarzenegger didn’t make any blatantly implausible
promises about how he would deal with the state’s multibillion-dollar
shortfall—he barely promised anything at all. He merely suggested
that, given a new infusion of common sense, goodwill and some star
quality, the problem could be solved without causing any serious pain
to the state’s citizens.
Why voters believe this sort of thing, in
or anywhere California
else, is a puzzle I have never come close to solving despite decades
of effort. You’d think that somewhere in the country, in the midst of
a gubernatorial campaign during a recession, somebody would notice
that all but a handful of the other 49 states in the country also are
experiencing virtually the same fiscal crisis.
If the problem were sleazy hacks clinging to power, or a shortage of
new ideas, or even a culture of waste, fraud and abuse, you’d expect
some variety from one state capitol to another. You’d have some states
rolling in money despite the recession, and you’d have others needing
a bailout from the I.M.F. to make up for their executive incompetence.
But that’s not the situation. For the past couple of years, just about
every state government has been in the same boat, stuck with tax
systems unable to generate the revenue to balance their budgets.
Given this rather simple reality, it’s extremely implausible—not to
say preposterous—to argue
is short $50 billion because California
Gray Davis was a mediocre governor. Nevertheless, this is exactly the
argument Schwarzenegger managed to sell to the state’s electorate,
just as candidates have been able to sell similar arguments without
much effort all over the country in recent years. If it is not quite a
deception worthy of Earl Long, it is a deception nevertheless.
While generally avoiding any sort of specifics about how he planned
to deal with
’s budget problems, Schwarzenegger did make a California
couple of firm promises over the course of his recall campaign. One
was that any reductions in education spending would have to be made
“over my dead body.” That commitment lasted three weeks into the new
administration. By mid-December, his body still seemingly warm, the
new governor declared that he might need to suspend the state
constitutional formula that guarantees
schools about 40 California
percent of state general fund revenues.
Then there was the vow Schwarzenegger made to cities and counties: In
repealing the car-tax increase he had campaigned impassionately
against, he promised to see that they didn’t lose a penny of the $4
billion in public funds the tax would have brought them. That
commitment unraveled almost immediately. In a TV interview before
Christmas, the governor told local officials to go see the legislature
if they wanted their money back. It wasn’t his problem, even if he had
said a month earlier that it was.
When Schwarzenegger released his first budget in mid-January, school
systems and local governments learned that the new governor did indeed
plan to renege on his campaign promises. He told the local governments
that a large portion of the $4 billion they stood to lose with the
car-tax repeal would have to remain lost. And the schools would be
asked to forgo about half of the money the state formula was supposed
to guarantee them. Earlier state budgets, Schwarzenegger said, had
been “shell games, using tricks and gimmicks to put off the hard
decisions.” In fact, the Los Angeles Times reported, the new budget
“relies on some of the same techniques he has criticized.”
The point of all this is not that Arnold Schwarzenegger is a monster.
In many ways, he has had a successful first few weeks in office. He
promised to repeal the car tax, and while that may have been foolish,
at least he delivered on that one. He won the right to ask voters for
permission to borrow $15 billion in the bond market to meet immediate
deficit problems, and it is possible that they will give it to him
(although it won’t do anything to help with the state’s long-term
structural budget problems). All in all, Californians seem to perceive
as a man of action unwilling to settle for defeatism and red Arnold
As long as that perception remains intact, Schwarzenegger has a
chance to be a successful governor—even, perhaps, an honest governor
willing to make painful sacrifices in time of need. But if he does
pull that off, it will be in spite of virtually everything he said
(and didn’t say) from the time he launched his campaign until the day
he took office.
The bottom line is that there is a dangerous disconnect between the
ever-more simplistic tone of modern campaigns for governor and the
subtle trade-offs the winners have to face when they take over the
job. It’s hard to get elected these days talking realistically about
the difficult choices any state faces. It’s even harder to govern
without reneging very quickly on something you promised in the heat of
a partisan debate.
I have a modest proposal to solve the problem: Let’s just sequester
the candidates—lock them in a room as soon as they are nominated,
sealing them off from communication with the outside world, and let
the media and the voters calmly examine their life histories and past
records and try to make an intelligent guess about what they might do
upon taking office. The winner wouldn’t be able to claim much of a
mandate, but he wouldn’t have to worry about breaking a promise every
time he made a difficult decision.
I’m not certain this would give us better government than we have
now. But I doubt it would make the situation any worse.
Questions: What does Alan Ehrenhalt
mean by “ostrich” politics?
What are its causes (for example, is it because of the voters, the politicians,
the media or some combination of the above)? Do you think “ostrich”
politics exists at the national level as well? Explain with examples.