The woebegone state of Nevada

Democrat Rory Reid and Republican Brian Sandoval, each of whom would like to become governor of our cash-strapped state, refuse to say they’ll raise taxes. Reid says he can balance the budget with cuts, reorganization and smarts. Maybe. One insider who knows him well calls Reid an incredibly talented administrator who would run the state brilliantly, but the question is whether he can be elected.

Meanwhile, Sandoval long since signed on to the Republican idea that taxes are evil and government is little better. Whether he always felt that way or decided during the primary that he had to sound like the disgraced Jim Gibbons if he wanted to win, who knows? If he becomes governor, he has boxed himself in.

Jon Ralston, the ubiquitous political analyst, has led the criticism of their refusal to call for higher taxes. Of course, he’s right in principle. The idea that Nevada can survive a rumored impending $3 billion shortfall on cuts alone is ridiculous. But principle, politics and getting elected are different things and often mutually exclusive.

My recent visit to southern Utah made that clear, and not just because I was in a state founded by religious pioneers with a history of being oppressed, a state whose governor encourages bigotry by advocating for the repeal of the 14th Amendment’s citizenship provision. It was also my choice of reading material that helped drive the point home.

My wife and I spent the weekend at the cabin of friends in the mountains near Cedar City. When not visiting, eating, admiring the trees and deer, and working (we public employees take our work on vacation), I picked up We Are Still Married (Penguin, 1990) by Garrison Keillor, creator of A Prairie Home Companion. One of his essays, written late in the 1988 presidential race, is called “Reagan.” He wrote, “What has been missing from the campaign is any note of reality.” Why?

“The line between entertainment and news has been blurred most successfully by President Reagan. Better than any rival, he has been able to describe the world as he wanted to see it—a description independent of any objective truth—and do it so winningly that his stories seemed almost real …,” Keillor wrote. “He has enlarged his office, yet diminished politics by his success, sapping our most fundamental strength, our ability as a democratic society to discuss and resolve our problems.”

Whatever one thinks of Reagan’s presidency—Rosalynn Carter described him perfectly when she said he made us comfortable in our prejudices—he made Americans feel better and more powerful.

Ironically, Reagan probably couldn’t have been elected president without the loyalty and support of a close friend from Nevada, Paul Laxalt, a governor and U.S. senator. So, a Nevadan, perhaps unwittingly, contributed to the decline of political discourse and problem solving by exporting beyond our borders our traditional refusal to face up to our failings. Yet, as governor, Laxalt backed creating a medical school and community colleges, and sought ways to fund them.

Not that he or any other candidate sought office by telling us what we needed to hear. Kenny Guinn’s recent death inspired high praise, but he spent his 2002 reelection campaign (against Joe Neal, who had as much chance of winning as Glenn Beck does of being honest) saying he had a plan to save Nevada and would divulge it later. The plan proved to be Nevada’s largest tax hike ever, but he didn’t say that as a candidate.

For Sandoval or Reid to admit the need for higher taxes might be honest and desirable to those of us who analyze politics, or who understand that Nevada’s status as one of the nation’s worst states for funding social services is deserved and disgusting. But it’s also pessimistic and politically suicidal. Sandoval hews to a party line that all taxes are evil because to admit otherwise would be to admit to reality.

Reid and the Democrats, meanwhile, should know that whether or not they advocate tax hikes, their opponents will claim they do. Calling for higher taxes in some areas (hello, mining) might cheer reality-based Democrats, Republicans and independents. But if the polls are accurate (we know about R-J polls), or even if they aren’t, he’s likelier to win applause from a few political analysts and otherwise disappear without leaving a laundry mark.