For Governors, the Era of Good Feelings Is Over

Are we sure the nation's governors, not Congress, gathered in Washington, D.C. this weekend? Ironically, the inception of the Obama administration has ushered ...
by | February 23, 2009

Are we sure the nation's governors, not Congress, gathered in Washington, D.C. this weekend? Ironically, the inception of the Obama administration has ushered in a new period in which governors rip into one another with impunity.

Under normal circumstances, there's no reason for one governor to criticize another. Even governors who are rabid partisans in their own states don't tend to see an advantage in attacking their colleagues from other states. What would be the point? If you're a Democratic governor, it's not like you're more likely to have a successful tenure because you pointed out the failings of a Republican governor elsewhere -- or vice versa.

And, over the course of the Bush administration, governors found especially little reason to criticize one another. More often than not, they agreed to criticize the president. I remember Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a former Bush administration official, noting during a visit to Governing that he tended to be one of the lone holdouts when the other governors would agree on some policy or another criticizing the president.

A good example of that was Real ID, the quasi-national ID card program. The leading critics were Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, a Republican, with almost every governor joining them in opposition. Democratic governors were happy to criticize Bush and Republicans didn't mind piling on because they believed that the law violated conservative principles of federalism. For similar reasons, governors were united in their opposition to federal control of the National Guard, for example.

Well, what a difference a president makes. Last weekend, as governors gathered for the National Governors Association meeting, suddenly they were sniping like Congress. Schweitzer was jabbing at Jindal over the stimulus and giving Sarah Palin grief for her absence. Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley joined in the fun, rapping Republican governors who are rejecting stimulus money as being part of the "fringe." Sanford fired back, comparing the stimulus to Soviet policies and saying that those who supported it were turning their backs on American principles.

At the same time, Republicans were engaging in an intra-party war of words. Arnold Schwarzenegger offered to accept the stimulus money from colleagues who rejected it. Sanford and Charlie Crist took to the pages of the Washington Post to lay out their diametrically opposed views of the federal recovery package.

Some governors did try to play peacemaker. And, you could attribute the infighting to a disagreement over a lone, highly charged issue, not a fundamental change in the way governors interact with each other.

But, I think something larger is going on here. There are several reasons to believe that the relationship between governors will be more contentious in the months ahead.

One is that so many governors are trying to position themselves for future presidential bids. You can't be elected president unless you're nominated by your party. You can't be nominated unless you appeal to partisans.

Another factor: The Democratic Governors Association and Republican Governors Association are on the rise as institutions. Congressional campaign committees have long been viewed as stepping stones to greater national prominence (Rahm Emanuel and Chuck Schumer are recent examples of that), but the gubernatorial committees have been comparatively sleepy.

No longer. Mitt Romney used the prominence and fundraising contacts he made as head of the RGA in 2006 to launch his presidential bid. Bill Richardson, at the DGA, did the same. Now Schweitzer and Sanford, the current chairs of the respective committees, appear to be following this model. To raise money and to be successful chairs, they have to throw some red meat to their partisans.

The final reason I expect governors to change the way they interact with one another is the Obama administration itself. With Bush, it was easy for governors of both parties to get in the habit of taking the "state" perspective on every issue.

With Obama, though, it won't be clear for a while whether he's really a friend of states or not. During this period of uncertainty, the chief executives of states will be less likely to represent a united gubernatorial perspective and more likely to think of themselves as Democrats and Republicans first.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer

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