The National Governors Association (NGA) has been a forum for comity, sober debate and discussion. For the most part, it has been free of the kind of overt partisanship seen elsewhere. Now it is just another battlefield in the partisan wars that define American politics.
There was no better example than the scene that unfolded outside the White House on Monday, when governors in both parties spoke to reporters after meeting with President Obama. What took place was a full-blown partisan disagreement as the cameras rolled.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) had been itching for this all weekend. During an appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday morning, he had signaled his intention to try to put the president on the spot. In a round of news interviews in the afternoon, he amped up his rhetoric. Outside the White House, he did so again. Obama, he declared, has waved the “white flag of surrender” on economic growth and is presiding over a “minimum-wage economy.”
Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy (D), who was standing next to Jindal, took umbrage at those remarks. Taking the microphone, he lectured Jindal for offering “probably the most partisan statement we’ve had all weekend.” He defended raising the minimum wage — the Democrats’ favorite issue these days — and said that Jindal’s comment was “the most insane statement I’ve ever heard.”
In the background, a voice can be heard saying, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no,” in protest, but Malloy continued. Closing his remarks, he decried the partisan turn in the rhetoric and the apparent breach of protocol that had just taken place on the White House grounds. “We didn’t start it,” he said of the Democrats.
Jindal then demanded time for a rebuttal. “I’d like to respond just quickly,” he said. “If that was the most partisan statement he heard all weekend, I want to make sure he hears a more partisan statement.” He then launched into an attack on the president’s Affordable Care Act.
It’s easy to dismiss all this as play-acting by politicians in front of the cameras in an election year, as that’s what some of it was. The NGA’s public sessions over the weekend were generally free of partisanship — but generally free, too, of anything controversial that might expose the deep divisions between the parties on major issues.
The governors-only lunches were generally civil as well, participants said. But they, too, skirted issues that might provoke more contentious debate. On the Affordable Care Act, the two sides have agreed to disagree, rather than perhaps find common approaches to implementation.
Meanwhile, Jindal was playing an assigned role as vice chairman of the Republican Governors Association (RGA). With New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the current RGA chairman, absent on Monday, Jindal was assuming the role of lead partisan for his party — just as Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) did all weekend as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association.
But another reading of the moment illustrates a more important reality, which is the degree to which the red-blue divisions that so color the politics of official Washington have infected an organization that for so many years has offered a respite from those partisan wars.
That Jindal felt the impulse to score his partisan points on the White House grounds, standing with governors of both parties, showed that even the guise of common interest among the governors has been almost totally eroded.
The NGA has never been free of partisan tensions or partisan game-playing. In 1992, Colorado Gov. Roy Romer (D) used the governors’ annual meeting with then-President George H.W. Bush to attack Bush’s economic policies.
“Could I ask the press not to leave yet?” Romer commanded before he went after the president to assure maximum coverage. Bush’s White House eventually responded by cutting off the audio feed to the loudspeakers.
In 1995, after Republicans had taken control of the House and the Senate, Howard Dean, who was then the governor of Vermont and the NGA chairman, attacked the outlines of a welfare reform proposal congressional Republicans and GOP governors put together.
“I’ll be damned if I’m going to let extremists take over the National Governors Association,” Dean told me at the time.
It was left to other governors of both parties who were longtime members of the organization (among them Romer) to intercede quietly behind the scenes to help calm the waters and restore civility to the NGA’s operations.
But there was another moment that perhaps best captured the way governors in both parties once viewed the organization. This was in August 1993 in Tulsa, where 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.
Civility extends to the personal relationships among the governors of opposing parties. State leaders look to one another for best practices and ideas. And there is still some commonality of interest. Today, Democratic and Republican governors are alarmed by the Obama administration’s proposed cuts to the National Guard, for example.
But in reality, the states have turned, as Washington has turned, into camps of red and blue, pursuing different paths and speaking to, and for, two different Americas.