State House status

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  August 12, 2009

His failures helped the party pry a Senate seat away from Chafee, in his Republican days, three years ago. And in November, deep disenchantment with the Bush administration led to big GOP losses in the state legislature.

It is, of course, difficult to imagine the current commander-in-chief provoking anything like the enmity his predecessor inspired. Indeed, a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found the public continues to blame President Bush for much of the nation's economic strife.

But the same survey suggested the gloom is rubbing off on the new administration. President Obama's overall approval rating has dipped below 60 percent for the first time. Faith in the stimulus package is eroding. Concern about the deficit is growing.

And if the push for major health care reform falls flat, Obama's progressive, interventionist approach to the economy could take a serious tumble in the public estimation.

"The new openness to an expanded role in government is entirely dependent on the government's success," said Darrell West, a former Brown University political science professor now at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

Indeed, a backlash to Obamanomics has already cropped up in this state. A new conservative think tank is churning out white papers. A passel of bloggers is beating the drum ever louder. And a protest group known as the Rhode Island Tea Party has proven remarkably adept at grabbing headlines in recent months.

Of course, that conservative impulse has little chance of ushering in an era of Republican rule here. This is a deep blue state, after all. But it could mean trouble for the most liberal Democrats — if not at the polls, then at least in the State House corridors, where policy is made.

Indeed, with the state's budget deficits running into the hundreds of millions of late, there is a clamoring for fiscal discipline that does not bode well for progressives hoping to expand the state's safety net.

None other than General Treasurer Frank T. Caprio, widely considered the frontrunner for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, is building his nascent, still unofficial candidacy around a message of fiscal responsibility.

He has pushed to rein in state pension costs and made little secret of his plans to create a "competitive" tax structure that will attract wealthy types who might invest in Rhode Island's struggling economy. And it is not just his economic policy that has raised eyebrows in progressive circles.

Caprio, who voted for same-sex partner benefits several times while in the legislature, has nonetheless managed to turn off some liberals with his lukewarm support for gay marriage — he says he "won't stand in the way" of the legislation as governor.

His rival for the Democratic nomination, Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch, has fared a little better with the liberals' chattering class, declaring firm support for gay nuptials.

But Lynch labeled himself a Blue Dog Democrat, in the mold of Southern and Midwestern moderates, in a recent interview with the Phoenix and has faced criticism for his stands on some civil liberties issues.

Fox, the openly gay majority leader, has also disappointed some on the left — coming under fire for a cautious approach to same-sex marriage legislation and a general propensity to cater to the moderate and conservative wings of the party.

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  Topics: News Features , Barack Obama, U.S. Government, William Murphy,  More more >
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