Ignoring the Governors
By David S. Broder
A year ago Tom Ridge, the governor of Pennsylvania, had a brief flurry of publicity as a possible running mate for Republican nominee Bob Dole. Three years from now, it is entirely possible that Ridge, a 51-year-old blue-collar Catholic, a Harvard grad and decorated Vietnam vet, could be on the GOP national ticket. But for now, no one outside Pennsylvania has a clue what Ridge has done since his election in 1994 to make himself so popular in this key electoral battleground that the Democrats literally have not been able to find anyone to run against him next year.
Ridge is not unique. When the National Governors' Association (NGA) met last week in Las Vegas, there were authors of Republican success stories in most of the seats. The GOP holds governorships in 32 of the 50 states, including nine of the biggest 10. In all but a handful of those states, the incumbents who are seeking reelection are heavy favorites to win.
They are the best thing the Republican Party has going for it. Only a party as ineptly led as the current GOP would let their stories remain a secret, while spotlighting spokesmen as undramatic as Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and as unpopular as House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
While Lott and Gingrich and their congressional colleagues were busy celebrating their budget deal with President Clinton, the GOP governors were quietly fuming that once again, they had been given short shrift both substantively and politically.
The governors, on a bipartisan basis, argued vehemently that their efforts to move people off welfare would be impeded if prospective employers were required to conform to all the provisions of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.
The Democrats knew they could not sway President Clinton. He had adopted the view, urged by the unions, that people coming off welfare should be treated as regular employees, guaranteed the minimum wage and all the standard benefits, even though they often may not initially be able to perform all that well.
But Republican governors hoped their party's congressional leaders would put up a fight for their cause. Instead, they were told that Clinton was threatening a veto on this issue and the overall deal was too important to jeopardize.
Ohio Gov. George Voinovich (R), the incoming NGA chairman and chief negotiator with his party's congressional leaders, was polite about the setback. He is hoping to be elected to the Senate next year and does not want to burn any bridges. He pronounced himself "very, very grateful" to Gingrich and Lott for help on other issues, but said, "Even though they understood how important this was to us, they were not willing to call the White House's bluff on that veto threat. Frankly, I wish they had."
Ridge, who left the House after 12 years to run for governor, was more blunt. He said that thousands of welfare mothers in Pennsylvania will be denied job opportunities because his party's congressional leaders were forced into practicing "political triage." A series of GOP blunders, starting with the shutdown of government and continuing with the flood-disaster-relief-bill fiasco and the revolt of what he called "the Gingrich Groupies," forced "the politics of accommodation" and "gave Clinton all the leverage."
Ridge said the gulf between the Republican governors and the Washington wing of the party is getting worse. "Dole was the first to open the door to us," Ridge remarked, "but now it seems to be closing." As Senate majority leader, Dole cultivated the governors, who proved to be his most important allies in securing the presidential nomination. Lott, by contrast, "does not see governors as part of his constituency," said Connecticut Gov. John Rowland (R), like Ridge a colleague of Lott's when they all served in the House.
The divorce was symbolized by the absence for the first time in many years of any top Washington Republican at the summer meeting of the NGA. Lott and Gingrich said they couldn't leave the budget negotiations, even though Clinton figured out a way to spend half a day schmoozing with the governors. Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson also was too busy to attend.
Last month, after public prodding from Michigan Gov. John Engler, another of the GOP's nationally unknown but unbeatable state leaders, Nicholson agreed to convene a "summit" of Republican governors and congressional leaders to try to figure out where the party is going. There are vague plans for such a session outside Washington some time this autumn.
A smart party would not have to be cajoled into using this kind of talent. But we're talking about Republicans.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company