At Revolution's End

Interior nominee's career path mirrors the Republican cycle.

One way to trace the arc of the 1994 Republican revolution is to follow the career trajectory of former senator and now Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, R-Idaho, who was nominated in March to serve as Interior secretary. Just as Kempthorne's unexpected 1998 departure from Washington was a sign of the vim and vigor of the Republican agenda, his prospective return offers an insight into the malaise that currently grips his party.

Kempthorne first won election to the Senate in 1992, so he wasn't actually a member of the historic 1994 congressional class that gave Republicans control of Congress for the first time in 40 years. Yet he was clearly infused with its spirit, which became apparent when the Senate made his signature issue, unfunded federal mandates, the first order of legislative business in 1995.

Ensconced in a safe seat, Kempthorne likely could have remained in Washington for as long as he wished. Instead, he announced he would run for governor in 1998 after serving just one Senate term. "I truly do believe power now is irreversibly returning to the states," he said, "and that is where the important action will be."

At the time, his decision was surprising though not entirely illogical. In the revolution's early years, the principle of devolving authority back to the states was a central tenet of the Republican agenda. A generation of impressive GOP governors was busy showcasing a conservative theory of statehouse governance that reinforced and validated the rhetoric emanating from their Capitol Hill allies. It was only natural, then, that an ambitious and bright politician like Kempthorne might want to trade his junior status in the Senate for the invigorating challenge of running a state government.

But the Republican Congress rather quickly discovered that federalism was a far less attractive prospect than it originally thought. After all, what was the point of shifting power back to the states after spending decades trying to attain it? Why dismantle the levers of federal government when the opportunity to use them finally presented itself?

From that point forward, even if no Republican governor ever admitted it, the appeal of the governorship no longer seemed as alluring as it did in the heady days of 1994, and the GOP governors who held office that year began to blaze a trail to the nation's capital.

One of the first to leave was William Weld of Massachusetts, who gave up his office in 1997 at the mere pros-pect of becoming an ambassador to Mexico, signaling that perhaps the statehouse wasn't becoming the exciting laboratory of democracy promised by the 1994 revolutionaries.

By 2000, the flight to Washington was on. Texas Gov. George W. Bush became president. Three other governors-George Allen of Virginia, George Voinovich of Ohio and South Dakota's William Janklow-ended up in Congress. Another three-Michigan's John Engler, Oklahoma's Frank Keating and Bill Graves of Kansas-took jobs running influential D.C. trade associations.

A handful of governors proved quite willing to forsake the action in their state capitals to run Cabinet agencies-New Jersey's Christine Todd Whitman, Utah's Mike Leavitt, Pennsylvania's Tom Ridge and Wisconsin's Tommy Thompson. By 2006, when no one in Congress talked about federalism anymore, so many Republican governors had found their way to Washington that even the return of a states' rights evangelist like Kempthorne hardly warranted attention.

Thus for the second time in a decade, Kempthorne's career path provides a glimpse into the soul of the GOP revolution. His departure from Washington reflected an optimistic belief that a new era of federalism was dawning. His imminent return underscores the reality that such lofty notions are in their twilight.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec