If you are searching for someone to illuminate the new "New Federalism" and the changing relationship between the capital and the states, Lawton Chiles, former senator, recently elected governor of Florida, is the candidate. Chiles was once a maharajah of Washington. Today, he sees himself as having been part of the problem.
At the heart of George Bush's budget, much of which was mandated after intense, prolonged, hand-to-hand legislative-executive combat, is a move to give more social programs back to the states. Some governors who gathered here over the weekend for their midwinter conference said it was more programs than money. Gov. Jim Florio (D-N.J.) noted, "Discretion to deal with less money? That's not doing us a favor." Some dismissed the new approach as "Sununu Federalism."
But criticism was suppressed during the White House seance with the president. Bush opened with a discussion of the war, which cowed participants.
Some, like Chiles, don't think it matters much what Washington thinks. They have seen the federal government, through the Reagan years, divesting itself of responsibility for leading the country on social programs. Washington was once the breeding ground for ideas: the New Deal, the New Frontier and the Great Society tumbled out programs, directives, approaches. Head Start came out of Washington; so did other, less accepted approaches, like busing. Now, nothing comes out of the capital except for defense, smart bombs, Brilliant Pebbles, battle plans, military briefings.
As far as Chiles is concerned, that's okay, as long as Washington dispatches the occasional check to the provinces. He is willing to have the federal government monitor his expediture of the funds. He promises in turn to monitor his state's performance. But the best thing Washington can do for the states now, he told the National Press Club, is "to get out of the way."
Chiles left the Senate in 1988 because of burnout, because he couldn't get anything done. He recalled the frustration of a previous Press Club speech.
"Here I was," he said, "chairman of the Senate Budget Commiteee with oversight of a $1 trillion budget, here I was with 18 years of seniority and friends in high places -- and I was standing before the National Press Club pleading for someone -- anyone -- to take on the infant mortality issue and find a way to come up with $1 billion to provide universal access to health care for pregnant mothers.
"You'd think that all I had to do was go on the Senate floor, hold up the report that says that 40,000 infants are dying and that if you spend $1 billion out of $1 trillion budget you can slow down this fast track to the morgue -- you'd think there would have been a stampede to pass the Healthy Birth Act."
Well, of course, there wasn't. Colleagues deferred to the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, the bureaucrats fawned, but nothing happened. As governor, Chiles decides what is important and people do what he says. He has made the shameful infant mortality rate the first order of business in Florida, and he knows he is going to see results.
It used to be only Republican presidential candidates who inveighed against Washington, its obtuseness, incompetence, inertia and general all-round no-accountness. But hear a moderate Democrat on the subject: "The federal government should steer, not row. The Washington delivery system just doesn't work. I just want Washington to leave me alone. All the good ideas come from people in the cities and towns. State government doesn't work either. What we need is bubble up, not trickle down."
But this is not Republican talk, he insists. "Republicans said those things and talked about states' rights. But they wanted to take away the dollars, too."
Anyone who has looked closely can see that major national problems are being tackled at the state level, not in Washington. Take energy, which, considering that a war is being fought over it, should be on the front burner. The president is just now getting around to enunciating a policy. California's bold program of alternate fuels and pollution cutting has been in place for some time. On education, the federal government is in a trance. The breakthrough on child care comes from Massachusetts, where a program of day-long, year-round day care aimed at giving poor children a chance to make it in school is in full swing.
Chiles faces horrendous problems in Florida, in addition to an unacceptable infant mortality rate. His state has the nation's highest high school dropout rate. He thinks these problems can be solved, without raising taxes. He's combing Florida for problem-solvers; he knows there are none in Washington.