WHAT OTHERS SAY: Nixon vs. Nixon would offer interesting contrast

Monday, January 30, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:20 p.m. CST, Monday, January 30, 2012

Gov. Jay Nixon, a successful Democrat in an increasingly Republican-leaning state, might be the luckiest man in politics.

When his likely opponent in November, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, saw his political life implode last fall following a series of personal and professional embarrassments, Mr. Nixon was left with no serious GOP competition. He now will face one of two political neophytes: underfunded and unknown Kansas City attorney Bill Randles or wealthy St. Louis businessman Dave Spence.

Oddly, to judge by Mr. Nixon's State of the State speech and his proposed budget, the lack of competition is moving the moderate Democrat farther to the right. It's as if he wants the GOP nomination, too.

Mr. Nixon is not just accepting but embracing the "no new taxes" ideology so popular in the GOP-controlled Missouri legislature. He's cutting funding for Medicaid and higher education. He's offering more tax giveaways to businesses.

Even if Mr. Randles or Mr. Spence find a way to stage a credible campaign, Mr. Nixon isn't leaving them much Republican air to breathe, unless they want to bash organized labor and trial lawyers, which we expect they will.

Missouri would be better off if Mr. Nixon had a more competitive challenger. We have one in mind.

His name is Jeremiah W. "Jay" Nixon, and he ran for governor in 2008. That Mr. Nixon, the Old Jay, lamented Missouri's moribund rankings in higher education funding.

"Here in Missouri, we are moving the wrong direction on college affordability," Old Jay said while running for governor. He seemed to care that "middle-class families are getting squeezed" and that "higher education is moving further out of reach ..."

New Jay announced a budget that cuts higher education spending next year by 12.5 percent. He has proposed a budget that would put higher education spending in Missouri at its lowest level since 1997.

Old Jay called Gov. Matt Blunt's 2005 Medicaid cuts "brazen and insensitive." He said, "Democrats will make restoring the cuts to Medicaid and health care our No. 1 priority."

Old Jay tried to restore some cuts in his first year in office. The legislature balked. Since then, New Jay has proposed Medicaid cuts in each of the last three years, though, unlike Mr. Blunt, he would not cut anyone from the rolls. The single largest line item in about $500 million of cuts proposed by Mr. Nixon in the upcoming budget is $192 million to Medicaid.

New Jay says those Medicaid cuts won't affect services. We're sure the disabled and elderly patients left hanging by a bungled SynCare contract — an attempt to save money — beg to differ.

It's not that the Missouri Democratic Party has given up on priorities such as funding education and Medicaid, but that the party's leader has abandoned those very priorities.

A number of Democrats, including Old Jay's former communications director, Rep. Mary Still, D-Columbia, have backed proposals to increase the state's revenue for higher education and health care, including collecting Internet sales taxes and increasing the state's lowest-in-the-nation cigarette tax.

New Jay sticks his finger in the political winds, sees no upside to standing on principle and declines to utter an opinion on such ideas.

Mr. Nixon said in his State of the State speech that he's made tough choices. Well, sure he has. Managing a $23 billion budget is difficult even in the easiest of economic circumstances.

But making cuts the Republican legislature probably would have forced on him anyway isn't really all that tough. Challenging lawmakers with the reality that Missouri is on a low-tax, low-service race to the bottom would be courageous. Pushing hard for the very things you campaigned for even when the political winds are blowing against you is bold leadership.

When we endorsed Jay Nixon for governor in 2008, we rooted for a "New Nixon." The one we envisioned was a governor who "consistently puts his admirable principles before his political ambitions."

That guy, if he ever existed, is nowhere to be found.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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