Governing from the mushy middle

Posted on 08 November 2006 by Daniel Suhr

In its profile of the Wisconsin Governor’s race, the New York Times said incumbent Democrat Jim Doyle “comes off more as a technocrat than an ideologue.” The American Heritage Dictionary defines a technocrat as “a technical expert, especially one in a managerial or administrative position.”

Jim Doyle was re-elected yesterday by the voters of Wisconsin because he’s more of a technocrat than a politician. He’s a man of small ideas, not grand visions, and sometimes, often actually, voters like that.

On values issues, Doyle is a liberal’s liberal. He’s often wielded his veto pen to please the pro-gay marriage crowd, the pro-abortion groups and the gun control crowd. During the campaign he characterized his veto as the only thing stopping enactment of Republicans’ “extreme right-wing” social agenda, and he prodded liberals to get out and volunteer for his campaign.

But even with gay marriage and the death penalty on the ballot, Wisconsin voters choose Doyle based on his perceived moderate stances on economic and social questions. Doyle’s “Affordability Agenda,” which encompassed issues like health care, education, jobs and taxes, seemed to find solid center-left ground upon which to stand.

Health care
Doyle’s health care plan is a story of conflicting tax breaks. On the one hand, Doyle supports expanding the tax deduction for an employee’s share of the cost of health insurance. But on the other, Doyle is the only governor in the nation to veto a state tax deduction for health savings accounts. Still, tax credits and deductions are more moderate that standard liberal health care welfare programs.

This summer, Doyle created a bi-partisan “Healthy Wisconsin Council” to look at pooling catastrophic insurance purchasing in Wisconsin. What Doyle really wanted to do was replicate such a program in New York, but he lacked the political will. It may turn out to have been a campaign-season stunt to make Doyle appear concerned about health care. But if the Council’s Republicans get on board, it may become a bi-partisan program that saves the state and businesses on their health insurance premiums.

Doyle’s campaign ran a TV ad touting his work on FamilyCare, which allows some seniors to choose to stay in their homes rather than being placed in a nursing home. Because home care is generally cheaper than staff-intensive nursing homes, this program saves the state money. With bi-partisan support, FamilyCare will likely expand statewide over the next four years. This is typical of Doyle’s moderate tendencies: Find a program that saves taxpayers and provides state benefits for seniors. Education
Doyle has assiduously crafted his image as “the education governor.” So far, he’s pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into public schools. No doubt this school-spending spree will continue during his second term, which will make the teachers’ union very happy indeed. Still, do not expect Doyle’s second term to produce a comprehensive revamp of Wisconsin’s education funding system, which analysts on both sides of the aisle believe to be terribly broken. It is doubtful Doyle and Legislative Republicans could ever find an agreement that meets the needs of Doyle’s teachers’ union pals and Republicans’ anti-tax agenda.

Doyle’s “Wisconsin Covenant,” which guarantees high-performing eighth-graders admission to a college in Wisconsin, has already secured significant support from both public and private institutions of higher learning. This initiative’s success will be his signature second-term accomplishment for higher education.

Jobs and taxes
Here again, Doyle has managed to seek out a mushy center-left existence. During his first term, Doyle signed Jobs Creation Acts I and II to repeal various environmental and other regulations and reform the single-factor sales tax to help business in Wisconsin grow. He also signed two minimum wage increases, but only after convincing business interest groups to endorse the proposals and the Republican Legislature to pass them.

Given Doyle’s environmentalist campaign rhetoric and endorsements, it is highly doubtful that in his second term Doyle will pass any new regulatory relief. It’s also pretty unlikely Wisconsin will get another minimum wage increase after passing two in recent years. Rather, it is expected that Doyle will focus on passing a “Living Wage Tax Credit.” As a refundable tax credit, it is basically a welfare program – we’ll see if the Republicans in the Legislature bite.

On taxes, Doyle vetoed a strong Republican property tax freeze, and then used his line item veto pen to write his own watered-down property tax freeze. Still, however weak, it was a property tax freeze. In his second term, taxes will continue to grow incrementally, as Republicans continue to pass tough budgets and Doyle continues to use his veto pen to craft weak “freezes.”

Alternative Theory
The overall prediction is that Doyle will continue to govern from the mushy middle. On values questions he will wield his veto pen to stop Republicans from passing concealed carry, abortion restrictions etc. On social questions, he will continue his current track of spending more on education and using targeted tax credits and deductions to help working-class families.

Wisconsinites will see taxes continue to inch up incrementally under a quasi-freeze, but Doyle won’t be able to stray too far because his starting point will always be the Republican Legislature’s budget.

Yet Doyle suggested on WISC-TV this campaign is “quite possibly my last.” (Republicans have capitalized on these rumors to motivate their base, suggesting that Doyle has only been moderate during his first term because he wanted so badly to be re-elected. Once the need to appeal to independents and moderates is removed because he’s not running again, Doyle will govern from his hard-left heart, as the theory goes. Only time will tell if that theory is proven true; regardless, Doyle will still be limited to governing from the common ground he can find with Legislative Republicans.

Conclusion
No one will accuse Doyle of being the heir to John F. Kennedy. He’s bald and bland on the stump. But maybe that’s why the undecided voters went with him – he’s safe. He makes the trains run on time. He’s not flashy, but he not threatening either. And he’s a technocrat, not a politician. So even though only 32 percent of voters think Wisconsin is headed in the right direction, the incumbent governor wins. In a quintessentially purple state, Doyle navigated the last four years just right. He used his veto pen to keep his liberal base happy, and he used his bully pulpit to push small ideas that appeal to moderates. Toss in $12 million of television advertising, and in a heavily Democrat cycle you clinch four more years. What he’ll make of them will be as much up to the Republican legislative majority as Doyle himself.

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