Governors are ultimately responsible for the schools in their states, but that is not their only educational function. When they come to town every February for their winter meeting, they always introduce an element of reality into the often gauzy discussions of official Washington.
This year's meeting of the National Governors Association was no different. Once again, the state executives had an important message to deliver.
The economy, almost all of them said, is really fragile. "Bumping along the bottom" was the description of Massachusetts Republican Mitt Romney, a longtime venture capitalist. "It is really tough," said Wisconsin Democrat Jim Doyle. "Manufacturing and agriculture have taken a big hit. We have the highest unemployment in 12 years, and there's strong concern how soon it will come back."
Interestingly, both Romney and Doyle said that what will help most is getting past the uncertainties of the Iraq crisis. Few governors of either party expressed much confidence that the Bush administration's "economic growth" plan, even if enacted, actually would change the prospects for business and jobs in the next 12 months. Linda Lingle, the first Republican governor of Hawaii in 40 years, said the reaction in her state to Bush's proposal to end the double taxation of dividends "has not been strong in either direction. People regard it as more of a philosophical issue" than a short-term economic measure, she said.
"Business leaders tell me people are just sitting on the sidelines now, waiting for Iraq to be resolved," Doyle said. Romney agreed: "The specter of war with Iraq holds everything in abeyance."
Mark Warner, the freshman Democratic governor of Virginia, said he sees some signs of resumed growth in parts of the commonwealth. "But it's too early to say we're on the upswing," he cautioned.
And the Democratic governors of two mega-states, Gray Davis of California and Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, said the business leaders with whom they have conferred have what Rendell termed "no confidence at all" in the short-term economic prospects. Davis added: "Our economy is not getting better or worse. It's just level. And no one sees much happening the rest of this year."
Assuming that the governors are in touch with their states -- a pretty safe assumption -- the political implications are clear.
One Democratic governor after another said it is a mistake for their party's presidential candidates to spend a lot of time and energy debating Iraq policy among themselves. "We need to get back to the basics," said New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey. "The economy and education -- those are the things that will determine people's future."
Republican governors, less willing to speak on the record, nonetheless expressed some nervousness about the Bush economic team and the policy coming out of the White House.
Unlike many of the Democrats, they do not criticize the large tax cut Bush pushed through Congress in 2001, accepting the White House argument that the recession would have been worse without the stimulus that tax cut provided.
And they do not dwell on the red ink piling up in the federal budget -- at least $300 billion a year for the next two years. But as they go through the rigors of balancing their own budgets, as most state constitutions require, some of the Republicans note privately the contradiction built into the current picture.
The national government is hoping that the combination of low interest rates and very large budget deficits will provide the kind of boost needed to shake the economy out of the doldrums. At the same time, state after state is cutting back its spending -- often by double-digit percentages. And a few are also raising taxes. Such actions not only hurt the people who depend on these state programs and who pay state taxes, they also create a fiscal drag on the national economy that offsets whatever stimulus Washington is trying to provide.
Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, speaking on behalf of the Republican leadership of Congress, told the governors there is little prospect of federal relief for the states. But the fact is that the drastic steps states are being forced to take to balance their budgets hurt the nation and the entire economy.
For Republicans, who have seen one President Bush defeated by the weakness of a postwar economy, that is a troubling prospect.
One more bit of reality the governors brought with them to Washington.