Governors Know Best
After the celebrations of the success of Barack Obama, Joe Biden and the congressional Democrats, it is time to tip the hat to some other people -- with names such as John Hoeven, Jon Huntsman, Jim Douglas and Mitch Daniels. They are Republicans reelected Tuesday as governors of North Dakota, Utah, Vermont and Indiana.
This week, at least 16 of the 21 Republican governors now in office will gather in Miami to assess the state of their party. If there is any hope for its future, they are the ones most likely to provide it. In a dreadful year for the GOP, when senators and representatives were falling wholesale, not one incumbent Republican governor lost.
The contrast is especially sharp in the Northeast. This election cost Republicans their last sitting House member from New England, but three of the six states -- Vermont, Connecticut and Rhode Island -- are governed by Republicans.
When I asked Vermont's Douglas how he explained it, he said that his fellow governors "put progress ahead of partisanship, as I've done here. We have generous social programs, but we also have fiscal responsibility. We're the only state without a constitutional requirement to balance our budget, but we don't need it. Our deficit is zero."
Utah's Huntsman said that another secret of the Republican governors' success is: "We listen closely to our constituents and reflect what we hear in both policy formulation and execution. And governors have to work both sides of the aisle, even in a state like Utah, so we don't get caught up in the hyper-partisanship of Washington."
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour believes, on the basis of personal experience, that governors can be the catalyst for party revival. "When I became chairman of the Republican National Committee after Bill Clinton's election, I quickly found that our governors were the most popular, influential people in the party," he told me last week. "When the other party has the White House and both houses of Congress, as they did then and will now, the only place people can actually see Republican ideas being implemented is in the states."
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, the youngest and newest of the group, talks the same language as Barbour. "To succeed," he said, "we have to be the party of change, we have to root out corruption in our own ranks and we have to be the party of solutions." States, he said, can usefully experiment with solutions to the health-care dilemmas -- something Massachusetts has already done under Mitt Romney.
Indiana's Daniels, just reelected to a second term, may offer the best example of the distinctive approach of these politicians. After telling me that he was not sure he had any lessons to offer his party, he began to rattle off important ones:
"One thing we have learned is that fiscal restraint works. We dug out of a deficit and now we have a triple-A bond rating for the first time. Market principles work. We have begun to insure our uninsured, with health savings accounts, paid for with a higher tobacco tax. And I had no trouble supporting that, because I remember what Ronald Reagan said: When you tax something, you get less of it.
"We've learned that effective government works. We expanded our child welfare efforts to protect more children, and we reduced the waiting time in our license bureaus to an average of 7 1/2 minutes. We leased our tollway, and now we're improving roads all over the state without raising taxes or fees."
Daniels said he has traveled constantly for four years, listening to Hoosiers, and "I make a point of naming the voter who first alerted me to a problem." Governing seems abstract, he said, so it behooves officials to be very specific.
As for social issues, Daniels said, "I try to live traditional values and affirm them, but not impose them on others. I'm trying to bring the state together to do hard things -- not look for ways to divide us."
Does it work? Daniels was reelected with almost 60 percent of the vote, and exit polls indicate that a third of the people who voted for Barack Obama on Tuesday also voted for Daniels. His share of the black vote topped 20 percent.
Is there a lesson in these successes for the GOP?