It's the States, Stupid! | Pennsylvania Avenue

The New York Times’ front-page story on Jan. 12 on one-party domination of all but 13 state governments is an important piece of journalism that should cause serious rethinking and action.

In six specific ways:

1. It’s a reminder — especially to the media — that, with the federal government rendered impotent by partisan gridlock and poor leadership — significant political and policy action is taking place at the state level.

Every good newspaper and TV network needs to upgrade and systematize its (currently haphazard) coverage of good and bad things happening at the state level and the politics behind them.

As Nicholas Confessore’s piece reports, almost every one of the 23 states totally dominated by Republicans has passed new restrictions on abortion, made it harder to vote, refused to expand Medicaid as part of Obamacare, moved to limit union power and barred same-sex marriage.

Most all of the 13 states dominated by Democrats and the 13 mixed-control states — Nebraska has a nonpartisan legislature — have rejected abortion and voting restrictions, have expanded Medicaid, have a minimum wage higher than the national federal requirement and either have legalized same-sex marriage or are close to doing so.

What needs systematic reportage is not just what’s happening on these and other fronts, but what the consequences are.

2. The NYT piece is another reminder of how polarized the country is — the map shows the South, Mountain West and (since 2010) significant parts of the Midwest in bright red.

That, plus this recent Gallup poll report showing the 70 percent domination of the GOP by conservatives and increasing liberal influence among Democrats — means that we are becoming two nations, deeply divided ideologically and geographically. That’s the bad news.

3. The good news, if there is any, is that this will be a good time for the states to be closely examined as “laboratories of democracy.”

Good reporting — by the media, assisted by think tanks — should be tracking not just policy changes imposed in single-party states but the human results they produce — unemployment, economic growth and poverty rates, health statistics, education performance, incarceration rates, pollution levels, voter participation, etc.

If you read The Wall Street Journal editorial page, you find lots of assertions that red states like Texas are booming. If you listen to MSNBC, you’d think ordinary people are systematically victimized there and California is again Paradise. Anyone is free to comb databases to track the truth, of course, but the media should do it all the time.

4. Likely as not, at least a few 2014 GOP candidates for president will be governors — New Jersey’s Chris Christie (if Tollgate doesn’t eliminate him), Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, maybe Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and Ohio’s John R. Kasich. And Texas Gov. Rick Perry seems to think he deserves a second try.

And among Democrats, let’s hope New York’s Andrew M. Cuomo and Maryland’s Martin O’Malley won’t be scared off by the Hillary Rodham Clinton juggernaut.

Instead of waiting until the campaign gets started and charges and countercharges fly about the performance of these governors, the media should be paying systematic attention starting now. Who has improved student performance? Job growth? Public health? How do GOP governors stack up against Democrats?

5. The Times story is basically about crafty fundraising — especially how use of loopholes in various states’ laws masterminded by gifted GOP strategist Ed Gillespie for the Republican State Leadership Committee resulted in huge gains for that party in 2010, then was copied by liberal and gay groups in 2012.

It’s an implicit lament for the demise of the campaign finance reform movement that culminated in the 2002 McCain-Feingold Act limiting the size and use of political money. Increasingly — maybe, as ever — anything goes in campaign finance, and now it’s been blessed by the U.S. Supreme Court. And may be again.

The upshot is that political reformers need to radically change focus away from trying to control money and start trying at the state level to combat gerrymandering, open up primaries and make voting easier — all to enhance participation by moderates and independents.

6. Final lesson that underscores all of the above: Gillespie & Co. were so successful in 2010 that GOP legislatures and governors gerrymandered their party into Republican domination of the U.S. House for the rest of this decade. This means that politics in Washington is going to remain gridlocked and impotent — Democratic president, hostile Congress — until at least 2017. So the action is going to be at the state level. Let’s watch it — really closely.