Someone smarter than I am will have to explain what it is about the climate or environment of Arizona that produces exceptionally interesting and iconoclastic politicians. All that I know is that they keep appearing.
In the last generation, Arizona gave the nation Sen. Barry Goldwater, the founder of the conservative revolution in the Republican Party, and Rep. Morris Udall, the conscience and the sense of humor of the Democratic Party.
Now, there are two more unusually bright and independent voices emerging among the younger generation here. One is Rep. John McCain (R), the former Navy officer and Vietnam War POW, who became in his first term in office one of the influential voices among the newer members on defense and other issues. The other is Gov. Bruce Babbitt (D), who has been challenging what he calls "the lazy orthodoxy" of his party's thinking almost from the time he came to office six years ago.
If these two men find themselves as opponents for the Senate seat Goldwater is vacating in 1986, as many local observers speculate, it could prove to be one of the most interesting and important contests in the country.
Babbitt, who told me in a recent interview here that he will hold off on the Senate decision for another year, was one of the governors who led a post-election effort to recruit a nationally prominent figure for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee. The effort ended in failure, when their final hope, former Portland mayor and Secretary of Transportation Neil Goldschmidt, turned down the job.
But, as Babbitt pointed out, the identity of the new chairman is probably less important than the commitment all of the six active contenders for the post have made to create a forum where governors, mayors, members of Congress and legislative leaders can debate the future direction of the Democratic Party.
The agreement of the six aspirants in the Feb. 1 Democratic National Committee election, including the reported front-runner, attorney Paul Kirk, on the need for an active policy council is at least a partial victory for Babbitt and the other governors.
"A lot of people are starting to understand that the problem of the Democratic Party is not the lack of a messenger but the incoherence of our message," Babbitt said. "Some of us said that same thing after the 1980 election -- that we needed an internal debate to produce ideas with an edge, and not another pot of mush. But we were ignored.
"Now, I think Democrats understand it would be a great mistake to trot out a new set of candidates for a cattle show, only to lead them all to slaughter."
As Babbitt understands, there is a world of difference between a commitment to create a party policy council and the flowering of a genuine policy debate. Outgoing Democratic Chairman Charles T. Manatt had something he called a "strategy council," but it succumbed quickly to the congressional leaders' traditional jealousy of a rival set of policy spokesmen and to the timidity that always afflicts an opposition party.
The same thing could happen to this new effort, unless there is a collective decision for a substantial degree of intellectual and political risk-taking.
Babbitt has set an example of what is needed, in a series of post-election speeches, articles and interviews, deliberately designed to be provocative. He told me, for example, that the Democratic Party could not be credible to the part of the country where he lives "if we continue to have our education platform mailed in from the headquarters of the National Education Association, our economic policies written by the AFL-CIO and our plank on entitlement programs written by the American Association of Retired People."
In a speech last month to the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, he assailed the national Democratic Party for appearing to endorse protectionist measures on foreign trade, for seeking to "federalize the financing of education," and seeming to resist "any concepts of teacher competency testing or merit pay." On all three issues, he pointed out, Democratic governors are moving in the opposite direction.
In that and other speeches, Babbitt further challenged the orthodoxy by endorsing the Treasury Department's plan for tax-simplification, by calling for a "universal means test" on entitlement programs as part of a deficit-reduction package, and by urging the abandonment of national economic development plans in recognition of "the growing decentralization" of the economy.
There are good grounds for challenging almost all of these proposals, and a powerful case for arguing tha if the Democratic Party endorsed all of these policies simultaneously, it would jeopardize much of its remaining base of constituency support.
But Babbitt's point is to start a debate. And he is doing that very well -- as Arizonans tend to do, for whatever reason.