In reading an understated New York Times piece by Jonathan Martin on the growing partisanship of governors on the occasion of the National Governors Association’s annual meeting in Nashville, it occurred to me that it’s probably good the late David Broder isn’t around to see the dashing of one of his fondest fantasies. One of his most consistent perennial exercises was to attend NGA meetings and contrast the can-do, pragmatic, bipartisan spirit of the governors with their wrangling counterparts in Washington.
As a youngish gubernatorial staffer in the 1980s–whose first boss, George Busbee, was very active in NGA and chaired the group when Ronald Reagan took office a–I looked up to Broder (and also then-National Journal columnist Neal Peirce) as a rare bigfoot journalist who paid attention to state government and polities. I even had a hand-written note from Broder to Busbee praising a speech I wrote as a prized possession. And I even shared the then-partly-true Broderite conceit that governors were a different breed operating according to different principles than the feds.
Over the years the bipartisan rituals of the NGA have continued, but have also more and more represented empty incantations and focused more and more on marginal and non-ideological issues. My last NGA meeting was in late 1994, when the organization was chaired by Howard Dean and my boss sat next to George W. Bush in all the plenary sessions. The trajectory of those two pols (with Bush’s claim to be a pragmatic gubernatorial “reformer with results” vying with “compassionate conservatism” as the false flag of his presidential campaign) tells you a lot about the ideological and partisan realities that lurked beneath the surface of all the bipartisan talk. In a recent piece on this trend, WaPo’s Dan Balz observed how quickly and thoroughly the old tradition unraveled:
In August 1993 in Tulsa…the governors had gathered for their summer meeting. Bill Clinton, who had led the NGA when he was governor of Arkansas, was in his first year as president.
Clinton arrived in Tulsa beleaguered after a bitter fight over his budget, which included a tax increase. The measure passed the House and the Senate by a single vote. No Republican had supported the measure. Clinton told the governors that he never wanted to go through another period “where we have to get all of our votes within one party.”
As he concluded, he sounded a note of nostalgia as he talked about the contrast between what he had just been through in Washington and the world as he knew it in the governors association. “I miss you,” he told his former colleagues. “I miss this. I miss the way we make decisions. I miss the sort of heart and soul and fabric of life that was part of every day when I got up and went to work in a state capital. Somehow we’ve got to bring that back to Washington.”
Those days are long gone, never probably to be recaptured. Instead of the governors bringing their ethic to Washington, the reverse has occurred.
I was there in Tulsa, and I have to say I have mixed feelings about what’s happened to the governors. The older I get, the more it becomes obvious to me that the “partisanship” in Washington is not some disease in the water supply, or the product of elites or interest groups, or a projection of bad media habits onto the people they cover. The great ideological “sorting-out” that has led most political scientists to suggest we are in a Sixth Party System as remote from the pre-Civil Rights Era Fifth System as from the First and Second reflects real and abiding differences rooted in culture and economics that inevitably has shaped the parties at the state as well as the federal level. The more I read political history, the more it’s clear today’s “partisanship” is far from unique (or even unusual) in the American political traditions. And so it’s equally clear the nostalgia for the supposed bipartisanship of governors is mostly anachronistic.
The last gasp of this tradition (for the time being) may have been the Common Core initiative that the business community lashed (and funded) the governors through not so long ago. We see what’s happening to that right now. It has about as bright an immediate future as NGA.