Reflecting on the political climate facing state and local governments in 2012, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and former Michigan Gov. John Engler pointed to a lack of leadership in Washington as a hindrance to effective policymaking, but praised state and local authorities for taking action despite the sometimes difficult political calculus involved.

“I’ve been struck with how governors in both parties have embarked on courses of action designed to straighten out their problems,” Engler said during a discussion at Governing Outlook in the States and Localities. “They have not waited for Washington.”

Dean portrayed the extremely partisan atmosphere in the federal government and elsewhere as “a moral crisis.” But he followed that warning by asserting that the economy is “fundamentally strong” and that state and local governments have been more successful in facilitating and taking action than their counterparts in Washington.

“The higher you go, the less that gets done,” Dean said. “But I do think it will get better.”

The former governors, who both served from 1991-2003, offered some broad advice for enacting effective policies and transforming the political environment. Dean pointed to the potential of public-private partnerships in a time when tax increases are generally seen as unviable politically. Engler singled out infrastructure as a necessary investment for the country's future competitiveness and said that it should transcend partisan hostilities. Both acknowledged a need to reform campaign finance, although they suggested alternative ways of approaching the issue: Dean supported repealing Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission; Engler proposed taking all campaign finance rules off the table, but requiring instant transparency.

In the end, though, both governors came back around to the necessity of more political leadership and a willingness to cross the aisle to accomplish common goals. “There is always a next election, and that is a prescription for disaster,” Engler said, alluding to the dominance of politically-driven hyperbole in the national discourse. “You've got to able to compromise with people who disagree with you.”

Asked about the apparent vacuum of effective government leaders, Dean explained that the negative rhetoric and intense pressure and scrutiny from “pack journalism” make public office a less attractive avenue for talented individuals. “Why would you subject yourself to that?” he asked.

“There are plenty of good candidates out there,” Dean said. “Most of them don’t want anything to do with politics.”