Of the 50 state chief executives eligible to attend the National Governors Conference, which begins here this weekend, 34 are Democrats. Most of those 34 Democrats sincerely believe they are eminently better qualified to be their party's 1988 presidential nominee, and the next president, than all of the half-dozen or so senators being prominently mentioned. After all, they reason, we do -- senators only talk.
It is true that senators make "major addresses," hold stormy hearings and issue press releases. But governors, less dramatically, make real decisions about whose neighborhood the expressway will scar, what will be spent on public education, and who will pay. And undoubtedly compounding the governor's frustration is their knowledge that, under the existing nominating process, no incumbent governor can realistically seek the presidential nomination.
Only 20 years ago, the governor's lot was a far different one. Then, before both the proliferation of presidential primaries and a tough new federal election law which limits severely what any presidential candidate can spend in seeking the nomination, governors had the undisputed clout to "deliver" their state convention delegations to their preferred candidate.
But because time and money are the principal finite resources any candidate can "spend" in a campaign, and because when all presidential candidates are limited (as they basically are under the federal election law) to spending no more than any other candidate, time has become a more important element in the political equation. It is surely no accident that, since the campaign spending ceiling was imposed prior to the 1976 presidential campaign, every nominee of the "out" party -- Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Walter Mondale -- was out of office and a full-time candidate for a minimum of two years. Governors are not able to devote a couple of years to primary campaigning without guaranteeing their own impeachment.
A governor is held to entirely different standards by his body politic and political press corps than is the same state's U.S. senator. The senator who, instead of returning over the weekend to see the home-town folks in Centerville, accepts invitations to speak at a UCLA commencement in Los Angeles, a UJA dinner in Chicago, and a UAW conference in Detroit may be described as "an emerging national figure." But heaven help the poor governor, elected by the very same voters, who is out of state for 36 consecutive hours.
Now Democratic governors, led by Chuck Robb of Virginia and Bruce Babbitt of Arizona, have announced their collective intention to play a big role in the rehabilitation of the national party. Such involvement would be unprecedented for any group of governors. But many Democratic governors, proud of both their political skills and their public records of achievement, are aggressively unbashful about what the national party can learn from them. In many cases those public records are indeed impressive.
Of course a few governors prefer to overlook the fact that people in their position are also able to duck some of the tough national issues such as civil rights and foreign policy. And of course, the fact that 37 of the governors are chosen in elections other than presidential elections is one more form of insulation for certain Democratic gubernatorial candidates. Even so, the willingness of governors to involve themselves in the briar patch of national politics can only be good news for the Democrats.