NEW ORLEANS -- Republican governors meeting here this past week patted themselves on the back for their successes in the 2004 elections, in which they gained one more governorship and, with the addition of Missouri, created a cross-country archipelago of GOP control.
"We can now travel from East Coast to West Coast and stay in Republican gubernatorial territory," said Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, whose term as chairman of the Republican Governors Association concluded at the New Orleans meeting.
But with President Bush reelected and strengthened GOP majorities in the House and Senate, the locus of power within the party has clearly shifted to Washington, leaving open the question of what role governors will play in shaping the Republican agenda.
"For Republican governors, it means we have an ear in the White House, we have a number we can call, we have access that we wouldn't have otherwise had, and that's of course helpful," said Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. "But I think we're all hoping for much more."
By 2008, GOP governors will be in the forefront of shaping the party's future as Republicans battle over a successor to Bush. Some of the party's brightest stars are in the gubernatorial ranks -- California's Arnold Schwarzenegger tops that list -- and Romney, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New York Gov. George E. Pataki and Colorado Gov. Bill Owens are among those discussed as possible candidates.
But the 29 GOP governors must get through what could be a difficult 2006 midterm election for the party and before that must decide how to use their numbers and clout to shape the party's future.
Over the past decade, Republican governors played crucial roles in the party's evolution. When the GOP captured the House and Senate in 1994, they turned to their governors for advice and leadership on domestic issues, most prominently on how to reform the welfare system. As Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who chaired the Republican National Committee at the time, put it, "The role [of governors] has been to demonstrate that these ideas work."
In 1999 and 2000, Republican governors provided the political muscle that helped Bush win the party's presidential nomination, and when he was elected, he drew on fellow governors to populate his administration. For example, Wisconsin's Tommy G. Thompson heads the Department of Health and Human Services, and Utah's Mike Leavitt now leads the Environmental Protection Agency.
But Bush has done little to devolve further power to the states, something that was popular among conservatives during the mid-1990s. He has not shrunk the size of the federal government. His education proposal, the No Child Left Behind Act, has given Washington an even stronger voice in how local schools are run. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security has put Washington in a much more prominent role in how state and local law enforcement agencies organize and do their jobs.
Bush has talked about two big second-term domestic initiatives. The first is to overhaul Social Security by allowing younger workers to invest a portion of their payroll taxes in personal accounts, a proposal that will spark a big political battle. Governors are likely to be bystanders in that battle.
The second is comprehensive tax reform and simplification, which has huge implications for the states because of the relation between the state and federal income tax systems. But until the outlines of a Bush plan emerge, the states will be left in a wait-and-see position.
Romney said governors want Washington to tackle problems created by the looming baby boom retirement and growing pressure on programs for the poor. "We have an enormous age wave about to hit our safety net programs, our senior programs," he said. "How do we deal with that? Now is a political opportunity."
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Bush's concept of an ownership society is brilliant and a model for Republican governance. "I think, as a matter of public policy, brilliant because what he's saying is we're going to take entitlement programs and reform them . . . to allow [citizens] to make choices," he said. Asked whether there was a state role in all that, he replied, "There is if they let us."
Governors would like to see Bush and the GOP Congress get the federal deficits under control, and they particularly want something done about Medicaid, which continues to crush their budgets. "The biggest challenge for most governors is Medicaid," Barbour said. "For my state, it's not a challenge, it' a danger. . . . You can't get control of the federal budget if you don't get control of health care. . . . We'd better put the full-court press on for cost-containment."
HHS's Thompson proposed a major change that would provide states with a block grant for Medicaid but give them far greater flexibility in how they administer the program. Some governors like the idea in principle but worry about losing funds. As a result, there has been no deal.
Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said the critical role for governors might be in articulating issues that are not on Washington's agenda, particularly in the area of health care. Huckabee has become a crusader on health issues since going through a weight-loss program recently and said major changes are needed to shift health care from a treatment-based system to one that emphasizes prevention. "The states really can be the laboratory to see that happen," he said.
Like other governors, Huckabee said that forcing action on Medicaid is critical but that governors cannot just complain about the financial burdens they face and expect Washington to respond. "I think we have to go and say we have a plan," he said.
Education and homeland security present other challenges for governors as they try to deal with a federal government in GOP hands. When the party was struggling for power in Washington, the governors demanded and won a seat at the table from their Beltway colleagues. Now that their party has the power, they again may need to assert themselves.