It’s not a news bulletin that this has been a decade of conservative dominance in Washington. Since 2001, the top domestic priority for President Bush and the Republican Congress has been cutting taxes. With a few exceptions (led by the Medicare prescription drug benefit approved during Bush’s first term), the GOP majority has focused on limiting, not expanding, the federal government’s size and scope.
But a counter-cyclical trend toward government activism is thriving in the states governed by Democrats and moderate Republicans. This isn’t a new pattern. In earlier periods when conservatives controlled Washington, like the 1890s, 1920s and 1980s, state-level activism flourished, notes Richard P. Nathan, director of the Rockefeller Institute of Government at the State University of New York. And these state initiatives, Nathan argues, usually provided the foundation for the next surge in federal activism.
“When conservative coalitions controlled national offices, programs that were incubated, tested and debugged in liberal states became the basis for later national action,” Nathan, a former aide to President Nixon, writes in a paper to be released later this month.
Nathan has a strong case. State-level innovations such as child labor laws and public health reforms during the late 19th century helped inspire the Progressive Era outpouring of federal initiatives under Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal built on state experiments in the 1920s that established minimum labor standards and public relief for the destitute.
The Great Society stands as the great exception in this pattern, because it emerged nearly full-blown from Lyndon Johnson. But Bill Clinton’s “New Democrat” agenda built on local innovations in welfare reform, community policing and health care for the working poor.
Today, conservative ideas focused on limiting government and cutting taxes are as powerful in most “red” Republican-leaning states as they are in Washington. But in Democratic-leaning and swing states, experiments are developing that might headline the domestic agenda for the next president (either a Democrat or centrist Republican) committed to a more activist federal government.
Ideas sprouting in these states include a higher minimum wage (17 states exceed the national standard of $5.15 an hour), support for stem cell research, universal pre-school and guaranteeing all children access to health care.
One of the most intriguing, and widespread, priorities in the activist states is promoting energy independence and combating global warming. Here the contrast with Washington is especially stark.
Apart from some subsidies for the development of cleaner energy, the energy legislation Bush and the GOP Congress fashioned last summer excluded every systematic effort to reduce the emission of gases associated with global warming.
But in the states, those ideas are advancing – under both Republican and Democratic governors.
Twenty-one states have now approved measures requiring utilities to generate more of their electricity from renewable energy sources, which would reduce emissions of the greenhouse gases produced by fossil fuels. In a parallel initiative, the Western Governors’ Association is completing a plan to increase the production of renewable energy more than tenfold across the 18 Western states by 2015; by then it hopes renewable sources will provide as much as one-fifth of the region’s power.
Ten states are poised to follow California in mandating that cars and trucks reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases by 30 percent by 2016 – if the California standard survives a court challenge from the auto industry. A coalition of northeastern states still hopes to finalize a plan to mandate reductions in the emission of greenhouse gases by 10 percent from all sources by 2020. New Mexico, Arizona and three West Coast states are also partnering to reduce those emissions.
These green ideas have advanced most in blue states that voted Democratic in 2004. But the states requiring utilities to generate more power from renewable sources include Rust Belt swing states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and even conservative, energy-producing states like Texas, Colorado and Montana.
And these initiatives are finding champions not only among Democratic governors such as New Mexico’s Bill Richardson, but also Republicans such as California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger and New York’s George Pataki.
On any of these fronts – stem cell research, children’s health care, combating global warming – there’s a limit to how much states and localities can accomplish without federal action. It’s possible Congress or the Bush administration may try to block some of the global warming initiatives.
But the ideas now germinating in the states may increase the pressure on Washington to address these concerns – especially when the cycle in national politics next tilts back toward greater federal activism. When the countryside rumbles, sooner or later the capital always shakes.
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