Correction to This Article
This article on the meeting of the National Governors Association misspelled the given name of Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.

Clinton Urges Governors to Nurture 'Laboratories of Democracy'

Former president Bill Clinton challenges the National Governors Association to tackle such issues as income inequality and climate change.
Former president Bill Clinton challenges the National Governors Association to tackle such issues as income inequality and climate change. (By Tom Mihalek -- Associated Press)
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 13, 2008

PHILADELPHIA, July 12 -- Former president Bill Clinton kicked off the centennial gathering of the National Governors Association here Saturday with a challenge to the states to reassert themselves to help the country combat what he called the profound challenges of globalization and interdependency.

Returning to an organization that helped launch him to the White House, Clinton urged states once again to become incubators for experimentation and innovation to reduce income inequality, resolve growing tensions over immigration and confront the threat of global climate change.

"The Founders were right," he said. "You have to be laboratories of democracy. The NGA gives the governors a forum to do that. We have to deal with inequality. We have to deal with identity. We have to deal with energy. If we do we're about to go into the most exciting period in human history. If we don't, in the words of President [Theodore] Roosevelt, dark will be the future. I'm betting on light."

It was Roosevelt who convened the first gathering of the nation's governors in 1908, and this weekend's celebration brought together more than 50 current and former state executives for what turned into a lively and provocative debate on issues including education, health care and whether term limits have weakened state legislatures.

Clinton, appearing in his capacity as head of his global foundation, made only passing references to the presidential campaign that occupied most of his time over the past year and never mentioned by name either of the presumptive nominees, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain.

Instead, he was the Clinton who rose through the gubernatorial ranks in the 1980s as an energetic policy activist prepared to talk about issues and solutions, no matter how large or small. "I used to tell people I loved going to the governors association," he said, "because it was the 'center of wonkdom.' "

Clinton used the example of his foundation to urge governors to take small but concrete actions to deal with such problems as childhood obesity or the cost to lower-income people without bank accounts having to pay exorbitant fees to cash paychecks.

But he also called on the governors to use their collective power, and their spirit of bipartisanship, to help Washington rewrite the No Child Left Behind Act, which he said has helped the lowest-performing schools, but at a cost of harming the performance of schools that traditionally have done a better job of educating their students.

The governors met for more than four hours of public discussion, and the co-mingling of past and current officials produced a vigorous dialogue and substantial disagreement on how to improve education, whether health care can be reformed through the states and the balance between state and federal power.

Although many of the current governors skipped the three-day meeting, many former governors who had played prominent roles in the NGA when they were in office made up for the absences.

Among the notable ex-governors in attendance were Democrats Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts and Roy Romer of Colorado and Republicans George Voinovich of Ohio and John Engler of Michigan. The participants also included two Bush Cabinet officers, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt and Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, both former NGA chairs.

The sharpest disagreement came over term limits. Voinovich, now a senator, said he regretted having supported term limits when he was governor and called it "one of the biggest mistakes I made" while in office. South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) defended term limits, but Engler sided with Voinovich. "They've been a complete disaster" in Michigan, he said.

After Clinton spoke, the governors focused more time on education and health care. Former New Hampshire governor John Sununu (R) said, "The desire to learn comes from the home," and without that, no matter how much you spend, you will not educate children. But Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R) said that underestimates what good teachers can do, adding, "We need to put them on a pedestal and pay them what they are worth."

On health care, Leavitt said states can and "will solve this problem" if the federal government sets standards for practice and gives them deadlines to meet. Dukakis, who said the bill he signed for universal health care in Massachusetts had been a failure, said the states cannot solve the problem. "It isn't going to happen," he said. He recommended expanding Medicare to cover the entire population.

After hearing many governors describe the many innovations in health-care policy that they are pushing in their states, former Washington governor Dan Evans (R) said, "The two presidential candidates should have been here to listen, not to talk."

During the morning session, moderator Richard Norton Smith asked the governors about the evolution of the term "states' rights," which prompted an eloquent statement from former Virginia governor Linwood Holton (R), who was a leader on civil rights when he served in the early 1970s. " 'States' rights' came to be a code word for white supremacy, to put it in the bluntest terms," he said. "And I resented it terribly for being used that way."

Amid all the serious talk were lighter moments Saturday. During the afternoon session, when the discussion moved to health care, one governor after another claimed to have the state with the healthiest population, demonstrating anew that statistics can be used to prove virtually anything.

At another point, moderator Cokie Roberts asked the governors to contemplate what it would mean if they were all separate countries. What would you do if you were a country? she asked Gov. Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania (D). "I'd invade Ohio," he said.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company