A delicious irony is at work in the state of Tennessee. The conservative revolution of 1994 that ushered Don Sundquist into the governor’s office is now what gives him fits. Those who proclaimed the virtue of tax cuts and limited government are now asking for the head of the man who was elected to implement their agenda.
The irony grows legs the more you look at it.
As one of the movement’s chief lieutenants, Sundquist can claim partial responsibility for making the public believe government must be reducedand reduced now. Elected to Congress in 1982, he hewed to a conservative voting record and argued against the tax-and-spend excesses of federal government.
Along the way, Sundquist nurtured Tennessee conservatives and helped shape them into a political force whose impact reached a zenith in the 1994 landslide. A sense of possibility, even romance, attached itself to the idea of conservatism in Tennessee and the rest of the nation. But now, Sundquist’s former foot soldiers are in no mood to listen to him. In fact, they want to tar and feather him.
The operative questions are these: What caused Sundquist to fall off the wagon and support an income tax? And does his support for an income tax amount to a real-life repudiation of “conservative government?”
For starters, let it be said that in Sundquist’s case, the vision of the candidateno income tax under any termscertainly didn’t jibe with the reality of the officea revenue stream that needed something more constant than a sales tax. It is a fact of life that things argued in the rarified air of the campaign trail sometimes simply don’t work. And one of the things Sundquist concluded after being governor for a while is that the state’s method of collecting revenue is tragically flawed.
Sure enough, he changed his mind about the income tax. That meant repudiating a lot of what he had promised.
The picture one arrives at with Sundquist is that of a genial, honest man who believed himself a conservative but who then had an epiphany that made him realize things were more complex. In other words, he is a man of moderate intelligence who ascribed to some nice-sounding political generalities, then learned some tough lessons on the job. To his credit, the picture also includes the fact that he has risked his legacy as governor to do what he thinks is right.
Sundquist is now the favorite punching bag among the right, a group that loves eating its own. (Consult recent Wall Street Journal editorial pages if you want a taste of their medicine.) To the more important question of whether real conservative government is possible, the answer is yes. But the public will want nothing to do with it.
The fact is you can eliminate TennCare. You can vote to reduce school funding. You can let inmates out on the streets so you won’t have to build more prisons. This will take care of the budget problem. But the truth is that people really don’t want that kind of government. Unfortunately, the conservatives who oppose Sundquist’s tax reform plans never proposed how to cut government. Instead, they preferred waving a wand over the budget in hopes that the whole mess would go away.
Last week, the state’s credit rating took a dive. Tennessee is slowly devolving into a bad place to do business, where artful deception during budget negotiations champions substance, and where government really is, as the talk-radio fanatics charge, truly evil.
It will get worse before it gets better.
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