In a discussion this week with National Review’s editors, Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana noted that Republicans and conservatives are having much better luck at the state level, with 30 GOP governors making real advances in important areas ranging from education to health care to criminal-justice reform — not issues generally associated with the elephant brand in the public mind. And consider: How many Americans know that in Rick Perry’s Texas the rate of incarceration has been going down? How many know that under the gubernatorial leadership of Mary Fallin, Oklahoma has seen its emergency cash reserves grow from $2.03 — actual couch-cushion money — to $600 million? If Republicans want to be seen as the party of getting stuff done, it has at least 30 theaters of action from which to choose. Instead, the drama is focused on Washington, where the GOP controls one chamber of one branch — enough to get blamed for Washington dysfunction, but not enough to govern.
So as the electorate grows paradoxically more conservative and less friendly to Republicans, the challenge for the GOP is to figure out how to connect its conservatism with a conservative public that distrusts the conservative party. That doesn’t sound like a terribly difficult challenge, but it is. Conservatism is a philosophy, which is a different thing from a specific policy agenda. Talking endlessly about the middle class is not going to cut it, nor is tinkering with tax rates. And beyond the specific political platform, Republicans have to show that they can be trusted to govern with the best interests of the broad electorate in mind. In 2013, showing that Republicans can govern starts with Republican governors. If there is any upside to the shutdown showdown, it is that by highlighting the fecklessness and foolishness of Washington, it increases the odds that a governor rather than a senator will emerge to lead the GOP in the next great contest.
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