A week ago, Jay Nixon was a Democratic governor with a promising political future. Today, he’s a guy with a rocky recent past.
The second-term governor of Missouri has been thrust into the harshest brand of national spotlight, thanks to the recent turmoil in his home state -- and widespread grousing that he’s done little to resolve the standoff between police and protesters in Ferguson.
How Nixon handles the next few days could determine whether his prospects of being a vice presidential contender -- or even a presidential hopeful -- will recover, or evaporate.
Nixon spent Thursday in Ferguson. But, say political observers, that's not nearly enough.
“Do more than just visit,” encouraged Michael Steele, a former lieutenant governor of Maryland and ex-chairman of the Republican National Committee. “You cannot just go there and take a walkabout amid the destruction and the tension and then go back to the state capital and say, ‘Well, I’ve done that.’”
Nixon appeared to share that assessment, laying out a range of new moves Thursday. He announced in the afternoon that he had directed the state highway patrol to take over security efforts in Ferguson, substituting for the embattled police force there. He vowed all would see a “different tone” from law enforcement, which has clashed with protesters since Sunday.
But in the eyes of many, it was too late.
Nixon didn’t intend to come to Ferguson until late Wednesday evening. He’d been scheduled to appear at the state fair until he scrapped those plans at the last minute as criticism mounted and the skirmishes intensified. Confrontations between police and protesters have been ramping up since Sunday, leading many to question why the governor hadn't stepped in more firmly, and far sooner.
Here’s a sampling of the heavy backlash Nixon faced on Twitter Wednesday:
— Michael Farrell (@kullfarr) August 14, 2014
Time for #JayNixon to take over the situation in Ferguson.
— Ronald Keith Gaddie (@OUKeithGaddie) August 14, 2014
— Ms B'well (@PamelaBwell) August 14, 2014
"Someone must step forward and take responsibility — both for the law enforcement effort that’s currently underway and then for the investigation that must follow," the St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board wrote on Tuesday. "It will have to be Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, a man whose every instinct is to dodge bad news whenever possible. Sorry, governor. But you asked for the job."
Nixon won re-election by 12 percentage points in 2012, an impressive feat in a conservative state. He's not a polarizing figure. And he got high marks for his response to the tornado that devastated Joplin in 2011.
That resume has made him a not-to-be-ignored political figure ahead of the 2016 presidential election. He signaled his desire to become a bigger player in national politics in an interview with The Washington Post last year. And he's talked about the importance of having the heartland's voice heard in Washington.
As a Democrat who can connect with conservatives, Nixon would make an intriguing vice presidential candidate. If Hillary Rodham Clinton decides not to run for president, his name would have been expected to suddenly pop up on many presidential short lists.
But backlash over events in Ferguson threatens to undercut all that. These are the sorts of situations people tend to remember.
Nixon is trying to combat the perception that he was slow to address a critical situation. The governor said Thursday he felt it was important for local agencies to solve the problems in Ferguson as much as possible. When he saw that wasn't working, he said, he stepped in.
"I just felt at this particular point, the attitudes weren't improving," he explained.
Nixon discussed the situation in Ferguson with civic and faith leaders in St. Louis County on Tuesday, his team notes. On Monday, he asked the Department of Justice to probe Brown's death.
But the images Wednesday broadcast widely on cable news and social media -- of a city in turmoil, of police using tear gas, of journalists being arrested -- were overwhelming to many. And Nixon's absence from Ferguson made those images even harder for people to accept.
So now he's there, hoping to ease the tensions. It may be the right move. The question is whether he made it in time.