When Washington State governor Gary Locke delivered the response to this year’s State of the Union address, the reviews were not flattering. Glenn Reynolds compared him to a city councilman. The authors of the American Prospect‘s unsigned weblog urged the national Democrats, “Please don’t ever give Gary Locke that kind of face-time again.”
These judgments were unduly harsh for a brief speech that was, let’s face it, the best response in recent memory to the American equivalent to the running of the bulls. It was well written and played to Locke’s strengths. As the First Chinese Governor, he spoke of the necessity of family, hard work, and education, and extended this paternalistic vision to the country as a whole, often using Bush’s own sloppy communitarian rhetoric against him.
Locke declared his party firmly on the president’s side in the war on terrorism, and then attacked where the prez is vulnerable: on entitlements, on the economy, on homeland security. He took a swipe at the either/or Medicaid proposal the administration was then floating (either keep the provisions of the system as it currently exists or switch to a different track that covers prescription drugs but rations care elsewhere). He blamed Bush’s “upside down economics” for the recession. He even managed to paint some of his party’s most unpopular policies (affirmative action and an absolutist position on abortion) as part of “our common purpose” over and against the “narrow special interests” that animate Republicans.
Critics of Locke’s rebuttal may have been overwrought, but they weren’t wrong to note some reluctance on his part. The governor is horrible in open confrontation, and prefers to rule by flattery and misdirection. As far as Washingtonians are concerned, the State of the Union reply was Locke at his snarling most belligerent. Before the last gubernatorial election, Dan Savage complained in Seattle’s alt weekly The Stranger that Locke, “behaves as if he, like the queen of England, is a constitutional monarch, barred from taking a public stand on anything controversial or — God forbid! — political.”
Savage meant it as an insult but the governor-as-constitutional-monarch crack isn’t far off the mark. The governor of Washington State is a constitutionally weak office, and it has been made even more infirm by the increase in voter initiatives in the last two decades. I often summarize the new consensus as, We hate the legislature, and the governor had better play dead.
The normal way of things in Washington is that politicians work hard to raise fees and taxes and pass irksome regulations, and then citizens sign petitions and vote for initiatives, pulling the rug out from under said pols at the ballot box. If Locke had his way, affirmative action would still be in place in public education, hand guns would be restricted, and a high car tax would not have been repealed. This year, he managed to get a gas tax hike, along with a few other fee increases, through the legislature, but self-proclaimed “initiative whore” Tim Eyman has promised to get back every last nickel for the taxpayers, and, odds are, he will.
But Gary Locke’s genius has been to recognize that we don’t particularly care what he thinks. His job is to say pleasant sounding things and not rock the boat too much. This even temper gave him excellent approval ratings and made him a two-term governor, with options on a third.
Of course, given the stifling nature of the office, it didn’t surprise too many locals when Locke recently announced he won’t be exercising that option. He and his wife will be returning to Seattle with their two young children in time for the oldest to start school. “It came down to ‘We want a normal life,'” he said. As various pols begin the long struggle to replace him, let me be the first to wish our quiet governor a happy retirement.
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