When you get a couple of dozen politicians together, the talk usually runs to politics. But at the meeting of the nation's governors, which ends this morning here at the Hyatt Regency, the talk has run mainly to government. True, you heard about putative presidential candidates dropping in on one governor, about party- switchers making races against former political allies, about local scandals likely to make the difference next November.
But more of the talk than you might suppose was about government. The papers on the press tables sported such titles as "Seeking an Action Plan for Educational Excellence" and "Medicaid 'CAP' Proposal." That's normal. What was not was that governors on panel discussion and in the hallways were themselves talking about similar things. Government and policy seem to be replacing elections and politics as the No. 1 discussion item for conferring governors.
Partly this reflects the problems incumbent governors face. They operate in a political climate sympathetic to incumbents, but at a time when the trend of policy -- from the Reagan budget to local tax referenda -- is to cut their supply of money while the demand for services remains constant. So it was no surprise to hear governors lament the demise of revenue sharing, decry the tendency of block grants to be smaller than the categorical programs they replace and warn of the dangers of the across-the- board cuts that may be mandated by Gramm-Rudman. They go so far as to advance, if not as a body to endorse, proposals to rearrange the responsibilities of government. "My own view is that Washington ought to work on war-and-peace issues, welfare, income maintenance, Social Security and reducing the debts," says association chairman Gov. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). "We ought to focus on better schools, clean water, healthy children, roads, prisons and mental health."
Pride in their own and their states' accomplishments is another reason for the governors' emphasis on government. At a time when national politicians can't balance the budget and admit they don't have the answers to major problems, governors can claim credit for setting in motion policies that have encouraged economic growth, raised test scores, cut welfare rolls and gotten criminals off the street.
Such accomplishments in turn have strengthened the governors' political standing. Once upon a time, gubernatorial elections depended mostly on the rise and fall of the national parties, and political observers took the result of a governor's race in Ohio or Illinois or Colorado as evidence of a national trend. Now state races hinge on the candidates' own leadership abilities and achievements. The best politics, it turns out, is good government plus a pinch of luck.
The 1986 gubernatorial elections won't be a referendum on Mr. Reagan's policies. What they will be, at least where incumbents are running, are verdicts on the performance and priorities of some pretty impressive politicians.