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What’s really going on in the governor’s race?

Jay Inslee, left, and Rob McKenna at a debate. Credit: State of Reform

Political campaigns are exercises in obfuscation: avoiding topics that annoy the base or don’t poll well, signaling (with escape clauses) to donor groups, avoiding specifics that would bestir sleeping pit bulls or produce massive retaliation. Herewith, one attempt at penetrating the fog in this fascinating, very-close governor’s race.

Democrat Jay Inslee is running as the incumbent. He never mentions Gov. Chris Gregoire, who is unpopular. But he is essentially running a Rose Garden campaign, hoping to preserve the strengths of the Democratic coalition that backed Gregoire and cleared the way for Inslee to have no primary opponent and to get lots of national cash for his race. Components: public employee and teacher unions, greens, social services, tribes, trial lawyers, the rail transit coalition, minorities, military contractors, the research-based part of the economy, and some Seattle-oriented progressive and lifestyle issues (gay marriage, density). Aside from some mild heresies on teacher accountability, Inslee does little to ruffle the feathers of these groups. This is smart politics, I guess, but it obscures the rather disruptive, mildly leftish Inslee.

Inslee’s stance intensifies the plight of long-in-command liberalism — it’s essentially preservationist, wary of reform, thin gruel for independents and impatient young people. It reminds me of Lord Salisbury’s famous quip a century ago, as Britain faced the facts of its decline from global dominance: “Whatever happens will be for the worse. Therefore it is our interest that as little should happen as possible.”

Accordingly, Inslee is running as the status quo candidate. He says he wouldn’t raise taxes, for instance, though even the tax-averse Gregoire has edged toward the need for more taxes. He wouldn’t favor charter schools, though he’d encourage experimentation at some public schools. He needs more “studies” before deciding on the coal port issue. All very soothing to those vested in the long consensus in Olympia and the state (big labor, big government, big business).

As to what the actual Gov. Inslee would do, that would be quite different: the greenest governor in the nation, a strong advocate for more light rail, an active recruiter of green-tech and other new-economy businesses, maybe the first governor in a long time who actually understands Seattle issues. Temperamentally, Inslee is far from the status-quo figure depicted on the campaign trail. But he is a new-initiatives guy, not a reform guy, so he'll have a hard time finding the money for the things he wants to do.

Governors need to be excellent COOs (chief operating officers), but voters want a charismatic CEO. The election of Obama and Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn illustrate where the voters gravitate (and then un-gravitate). Yet the job at hand is largely one of rolling up sleeves to make the money-starved and bloated systems of government work better.

Republican candidate Rob McKenna both gets the new realities of austerity and has the wonkish love of details to suggest he’d be a good COO.  Inslee is a classic short-attention-span improviser and placater, not a hard-choices manager.

McKenna’s chief problem, like Romney’s, is trust: Who is this guy? While Romney morphed from being a moderate pragmatist like his father to movement conservative (until last week), McKenna began as a conservative libertarian dissenter in King County politics and has morphed into a “Northwest Republican.” But which one would we get if we elected him?

The attorney general doesn’t help his case by his lawyerly evasions on some hot issues, such as expanding light rail, gay marriage, and abortion. McKenna doesn’t hide his dissenting views from conventional progressive stances, but he says he “respects the will of the voters.” (Also, apparently, the will of the Supreme Court on Obamacare.) Like a good lawyer, as he is, he implements and defends the judgments of his clients, even if his personal views differ. Not very leader-like, and it begs the question of what he’d do as these issues come up in the future (expanding light rail, making abortions more difficult to get). If for Inslee the key question is “Is he up to the job?” for McKenna, it’s “Can you trust him?”

Would the next governor be effective? Both are qualified and experienced public servants, but both are also insiders, consensus-finders, pragmatists, heavily influenced by major donors. Yet times are far more urgent, and in some states governors from both parties are far more aggressive about change. Inslee and McKenna both offer “painless change.” The vivid example is funding higher education. Inslee offers the elusive prospect of greater governmental efficiency (Toyota-style: good luck with that one!) and McKenna says it will take a decade of shifting funding from social services to education (good luck getting that through the House).

Both candidates have a core problem with their big claims. If McKenna does manage to steer more money to education, it will likely all be taken by K-12 funding, to meet the court-ordered McCleary decision, leaving very little for higher education. Inslee's big pitch for job creation overlooks the uncomfortable fact that governors cannot do much, except aroung the margins, to grow jobs: it takes a national recovery. Also, implementing lean management policies takes years and usually costs more in the first few years.

There are deeper problems, yet both are running mild-mandate campaigns. McKenna would face a hostile Democratic legislature, particularly Speaker Frank Chopp, who has proven to be more powerful than the governors.  Republicans would want Gov. McKenna to succeed, of course, and so their obstructionist opposition would moderate. But it’s not likely McKenna could appeal to a broad public, key to overcoming the entrenched interests in Olympia.

Inslee’s effectiveness problem would be loyalty to many of these entrenched groups, and inexperience in Olympia.  Further, the Washington governor is a constitutionally weak office, due to all the separately elected state officials (education, natural resources, attorney general, etc.) who do not need to heed a governor’s wishes. In Olympia, all the offices have to report to the powerful Speaker, who controls their budget, not to the governor. 

I suspect Inslee would try to be a dynamic leader, rousing the public, but then face powerful opposition if he attacked any of the empowered interests in a serious way. The wild card would be if Speaker Chopp, to preserve his job, tacks toward reform on some key issues (K-12, Medicaid, university funding) where his restive caucus is more insistent to change. Another problem for Gov. Inslee is that one or both chambers in Olympia will be effectively controlled by Republicans, using "roadkill Democrats" to have voting majorities on show-down issues. And of course, the Senate might well shift to GOP control.

Olympia’s tradition of respected but weak governors has produced a power vacuum, which translates into a system where the business agenda is increasingly dominant. McKenna’s election would partially ratify and extend this agenda, which I would put this way: Keep Boeing at all costs; preserve the tax-tilt to the affluent; drive down the general costs of business (workers’ comp, unemployment insurance); shun Seattle with its high costs of doing business and a dysfunctional, weirdly-liberal place (note there was no mention of Seattle issues in the recent debate); push for early-education and STEM programs to produce more engineers for the workforce; and allow a stealthy privatization of things we can’t get taxpayers to support (roads, workers’ comp, housing). A good version of the growth agenda has just been put forth by Seattle Times' columnist Jon Talton, who puts more emphasis on structural issues (infrastructure, investing in universities, immigration, and the state's underclass) than on a governor chasing jobs with incentives.

But the business agenda, while dominant, is also split. One camp is what might be called the Texas model: less regulation, low taxes, lots of venture capitalism. The other could be dubbed the Massachusetts model: highly educated workforce that requires liberal, urban settings, much more involvement by government in subsidizing "sunrise" sectors like clean energy and biomedical industries. McKenna would lean to the Texas model; Inslee from his years in D.C. and its major interest groups, would be a Boston guy.

McKenna’s campaign, built around improving education, has been effectively checkmated, leaving him without a good Plan B.  McKenna thought he could get to the left of Inslee on education funding, thus sending a strong signal to suburban moderates. He also calculated that Inslee’s strong support by teachers’ unions would become a liability. Inslee’s finesse was easy to predict and well executed. He simply mimicked McKenna’s stands by embracing selected parts of the reform agenda (better teacher evaluations), while staying true on the hot-button ones (opposing charter schools). Ironically, Inslee's lack of a real program to fund improved education, including at colleges, drew attention to the trap McKenna was in as a no-new-taxes Republican with a slow-cure solution. (Besides, voters are jaded, since every governor runs as an "education governor.")

Inslee then also trumped McKenna's efficiency issue by talking, albeit unconvincingly, about lean management. And he kept the media focus on his issue, job creation, thus avoiding too much attention on his basic strength, environmentalism, which would alarm some voters.

McKenna was trapped. If he became a full-throated reformer, he would muddy his moderate-pragmatist image and stir up the resistance. Likewise, if he got really specific (e.g., how to fund highway improvements like the floating bridge in the greater Seattle area), he would ignite local wars like transit-versus-cars.  His apparent Plan B is not to be bolder in his own proposals, but to go more negative, running a lot of ads about Inslee’s years in Congress, as a way of highlighting Inslee’s liberal partisanship.

In retrospect, McKenna might have been better advised to center his campaign on the phrase he used in his closing remarks in last Thursday’s debate: “We cannot continue down the same path.”  That would have meant much more detail about the problems created by 28 years of Democratic governors, as well as all the seismic shifts caused by globalism, the recession, and governmental complexity and over-reach. The problem, of course, is that McKenna has to win in a strongly Democratic state, so blaming the entrenched powers would make wooing soft Democrats and independents that much harder. Such an attack on the Old Order in Olympia would also make it harder for him to pass future legislation. His indirect, too-subtle way of signalling this line of attack is to deplore “bringing D.C.-style politics and partisanship to Olympia,” which might only serve to remind voters of the real villains in D.C., the Republican Party.

McKenna has tried to be positive, casting reform as progress (better schools), not retrenchment (fewer social services). Inslee, with his sunny stance of “always moving forward” and building on past programs, is winning the argument for progress and leadership. Give that man the award for political jiu-jitsu! And Inslee's tactics, joined with the Democratic tilt of the state, appear to be working: he leads by margins of 1-6 points in the three leading polls.

Lastly, the real election to keep in mind is 2016. If Inslee is the next governor, as it looks like he will be, the pressure for governmental reform will probably overwhelm him, setting him up for a reform Democrat like Ross Hunter to challenge in 2016 and finally reshape this party of inertia. (Or Inslee himself could pull a Clinton and become intent on modernizing his own party as a way to win reelection.)

If McKenna wins, his first term would be a donnybrook, as the powerful constituencies play their cards to protect their positions. But meanwhile, a McKenna-led GOP could come out of the oppositional doldrums, grow beyond Eymanism, and benefit by demographic shifts (more libertarian tech workers, family-values Hispanics, moderate suburbanites, young voters worried about entitlements). That reformed GOP could lay credible claim to being a party capable of governing in rapidly changing times, not coasting on nostalgia and debt.

True change might then come from either party — starting in 2016.

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