The growing diversity of American politics is reflected around the table whenever the nation's governors meet these days. At their gathering in Washington this week, you could see women in eight of the chairs and men of almost every ethnic, religious and racial background. There are Catholics in the Deep South, a Mormon in Massachusetts, a Taft and a Douglas representing old stock, but also a Napolitano, a Pawlenty, a Kulongoski and a Blagojevich.
The most famous governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was a no-show, but there were other characters around to demonstrate the appeal of independence and feistiness to America's voters.
Brian Schweitzer, the newly elected Democratic governor of Montana, the first of his party in 24 years, showed up in blue jeans, and -- until his wife intervened -- was ready to pass up the black-tie dinner Sunday at the White House in hopes of scoring tickets to see the Wizards-Kings basketball game.
Schweitzer, a soil scientist and rancher who worked for seven years in Saudi Arabia, was his state's Democratic candidate for the Senate in 2000, but he publicly supported John McCain for president. He's not the only one who defies easy categorization.
Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas is a second-generation governor; her father, John J. Gilligan, led Ohio for four years in the 1970s. Both are Democrats, but she is far less the outspoken liberal than he was. Before Howard Dean made his first speech as chairman of the Democratic National Committee in Kansas last week, she reminded him that President Bush had won her state by 25 points and admonished him to talk like the budget-balancing governor he had been in Vermont, not the fiery anti-Iraq-war presidential candidate.
On the Republican side, two plausible presidential possibilities, Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and George Pataki of New York, did their best to convince reporters they are really fixated on pushing ambitious governmental reforms in Boston and Albany. A third, Haley Barbour of Mississippi, was, as usual, hugely enjoying himself and lightening the mood for everyone around him.
Three Republican conservatives came to the conference after being pilloried by the right wing of their party for breaking the commandment never to raise taxes. Bob Riley of Alabama did it early in his term, backing a tax-increase referendum that failed, and has probably bought himself a primary opponent next year as a result.
The recent heretics are Bill Owens of Colorado, sometimes mentioned as a dark-horse presidential possibility, and Mitch Daniels of Indiana, famous in Washington as the hard-nosed budget director in Bush's first term.
Owens, nearing the end of his second term, concluded in January that after years of lean budgets, necessitated by the high-tech bust and the ravages of forest fires, he needed to expand spending a bit. Economic recovery boosted state revenue last year by 6 percent. But a constitutional amendment, passed by voter initiative, limits the growth in spending in any year to the product of inflation times population growth -- 2 percent in 2005. Anything beyond that must be rebated to taxpayers, not spent by the state.
Owens decided that Medicaid and school programs require some relaxation in those limits, and he is negotiating with his legislature, which wants to ease the caps more than he does. But the Wall Street Journal pummeled him on Monday for "using the same excuses he once excoriated" to justify his decision.
Daniels's story is similar -- but more dramatic. Elected in November after 16 years of Democratic control, he discovered an empty treasury and, after making all the cuts he could justify in state programs, still came up $250 million short of balancing the budget. So he has asked for a one-year, one-time surcharge on the wealthiest Hoosiers and is negotiating for that -- or some alternative revenue-enhancer.
That, too, is heresy for Grover Norquist and other enforcers of the no-new-taxes ideology, but Daniels says, "The only Grover they know in Indiana is the fuzzy creature on Sesame Street."
Almost all the governors have important stories to tell, and not all of them are grim. In states such as Arizona, Wisconsin and New York, economic recovery has filled the treasuries and made life more agreeable for the executives, while Washington, Oregon and others continue to struggle with bare-bones budgets.
But the effort of Republicans such as Riley, Owens and Daniels to come to grips with the real needs of their states deserves commendation and sympathy -- not the scorn from fellow conservatives that they have received. Across the board, governors of both parties are supreme realists -- and very good company.