The End of the Pragmatic Governor

Turbocharged partisanship has paralyzed Washington. Now it is getting between Washington and the states.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal speaks while flanked by members of the National Governors Association, after a meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House February 24, 2014 in Washington, DC. The governors are in DC for their winter meeting.  
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Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
Feb. 27, 2014, 4 p.m.

NGA, RIP.

That’s the un­avoid­able con­clu­sion after the out­burst out­side the White House this week from Louisi­ana’s Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernor, Bobby Jin­dal — and the coun­ter­punch it pro­voked from Con­necti­c­ut’s Demo­crat­ic gov­ernor, Dan­nel Mal­loy.

The Na­tion­al Gov­ernors As­so­ci­ation, the group that tries to herd the 50 gov­ernors around com­mon causes, will, of course, con­tin­ue to ex­ist. But the idea of gov­ernors as a more prag­mat­ic, less par­tis­an, con­sensus-build­ing force in Amer­ic­an polit­ics, which was already wheez­ing, can now be of­fi­cially in­terred.

Gov­ernors no longer provide an al­tern­at­ive to Wash­ing­ton’s un­stint­ing par­tis­an war­fare; either as con­scripts or vo­lun­teers, they are now al­most all com­batants in it. In the states, Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats are dis­play­ing pri­or­it­ies that dif­fer as sharply as their coun­ter­parts’ plans in Wash­ing­ton. And while that di­ver­gence has some pos­it­ive as­pects, over­all it is erod­ing the coun­try’s abil­ity to con­front its most press­ing chal­lenges.

Monday’s dus­tup began when Jin­dal, a pos­sible 2016 GOP pres­id­en­tial con­tender, emerged from a bi­par­tis­an NGA meet­ing with Pres­id­ent Obama and sweep­ingly de­nounced his host, par­tic­u­larly over rais­ing the min­im­um wage. That in­spired Mal­loy to de­clare Jin­dal’s re­marks “the most in­sane thing I’ve ever heard” and Jin­dal to jab back over health care — all as the oth­er gov­ernors squirmed like guests at a sud­denly heated Thanks­giv­ing din­ner.

To say this de­par­ted from the usu­al cus­toms of the meet­ings between gov­ernors and pres­id­ents is like say­ing it’s un­usu­al for pat­rons to heckle at the op­era. In the past, the gov­ernors’ ver­sion of heated has usu­ally in­volved dif­fer­ing views over in­fra­struc­ture-spend­ing for­mu­las. Ray­mond Schep­pach, a Uni­versity of Vir­gin­ia pub­lic-policy pro­fess­or who served as NGA’s ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or from 1983 through 2010, says the closest par­al­lel he can re­mem­ber to Monday’s events was when a Demo­crat­ic gov­ernor got miffed that George W. Bush’s aides star­ted dis­mant­ling the au­dio equip­ment be­fore he could speak to re­port­ers. And that’s not very close.

Yet this week’s al­ter­ca­tion car­ried an in­ev­it­ab­il­ity that re­flects long-gest­at­ing changes in the way gov­ernors op­er­ate in Wash­ing­ton, and at home.

In the states, the big story is the ac­cel­er­at­ing di­ver­gence of red and blue places. As the elect­or­ate has re-sor­ted along lines of race, age, and ideo­logy, more states have tipped de­cis­ively to­ward one or the oth­er party: Re­pub­lic­ans con­trol the state le­gis­latures and gov­ernor­ships in 23 states, and Demo­crats in 15. Those states un­der uni­fied party con­trol are now hurt­ling in op­pos­ite dir­ec­tions on is­sues as di­verse as gun con­trol, taxes, im­mig­ra­tion, and so­cial ques­tions: While 17 states, all Demo­crat­ic-lean­ing, per­mit gay mar­riage, 14 uni­formly red states have voted to re­strict ac­cess to abor­tion to 22 weeks in­to preg­nancy or earli­er.

In­ev­it­ably, these dif­fer­ences have shaped the gov­ernors’ at­ti­tudes to­ward fed­er­al policy. Dur­ing the wel­fare-re­form drive, Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernors such as Wis­con­sin’s Tommy Thompson sided with Pres­id­ent Clin­ton to block a pro­pos­al from the House GOP that the gov­ernors con­sidered too pun­it­ive; that sort of cross-party al­li­ance is al­most un­ima­gin­able now.

Vir­tu­ally every Re­pub­lic­an-con­trolled state sued to over­turn the health care law. Twelve states with GOP gov­ernors have joined the suit against fed­er­al cli­mate-change reg­u­la­tions now be­fore the Su­preme Court. Des­pite some im­port­ant ex­cep­tions (in­clud­ing Ari­zona, New Jer­sey, and Ohio) most Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernors have re­fused to ex­pand ac­cess to Medi­caid un­der Obama’s health care law — while every Demo­crat­ic gov­ernor has either done so or is seek­ing to.

In this jost­ling, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has giv­en about as good as it’s got. At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Eric Hold­er has sued Ari­zona and three oth­er states to block re­strict­ive im­mig­ra­tion laws, and his de­part­ment also sued Texas and North Car­o­lina to stop changes in vot­ing rules. This week, Hold­er en­cour­aged state at­tor­neys gen­er­al not to de­fend gay-mar­riage bans they con­sider un­con­sti­tu­tion­al. Just be­fore the Jin­dal-Mal­loy ex­change, Obama, at a Demo­crat­ic fun­draiser, used un­usu­ally poin­ted lan­guage to ac­cuse GOP gov­ernors of “pur­su­ing the same top-down, failed eco­nom­ic policies that don’t help Amer­ic­ans get ahead.”

Some of this ten­sion is in­ev­it­able and even be­ne­fi­cial. To an ex­tent, al­low­ing states to go their own way, par­tic­u­larly on so­cial mat­ters, provides a pres­sure re­lease on emo­tion­al is­sues.

But the starkly con­flict­ing ap­proaches on gay mar­riage, im­mig­ra­tion, and vot­ing rules are strain­ing the ques­tion of what rights are com­mon to all Amer­ic­ans. And the harden­ing di­vide between Re­pub­lic­an and Demo­crat­ic gov­ernors is sup­press­ing state in­nov­a­tion that once flowered pre­cisely be­cause it com­bined ideas from both parties. The charter-school move­ment began with pro­pos­als passed by Demo­crat­ic le­gis­latures and signed by Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernors in Min­nesota and Cali­for­nia. Wel­fare re­form blos­somed from state pi­lots launched by Thompson in Wis­con­sin and Clin­ton in Arkan­sas. From the 1980s on, Demo­crat­ic and Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernors equally powered the ac­count­ab­il­ity re­volu­tion in pub­lic edu­ca­tion.

The gov­ernors’ rising par­tis­an­ship not only short-cir­cuits that mech­an­ism for nur­tur­ing new ideas. Schep­pach wor­ries it will also en­cour­age fu­ture pres­id­ents to al­low states less flex­ib­il­ity in ad­min­is­ter­ing fed­er­al ini­ti­at­ives for fear that gov­ernors from the oth­er party will un­der­mine them (as on health care). Just as tur­bocharged par­tis­an­ship is para­lyz­ing Wash­ing­ton, it threatens to equally im­mob­il­ize the del­ic­ate part­ner­ship between Wash­ing­ton and the states.

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