Right now the country faces a public health crisis, which is producing an economic crisis. While in Washington they’re concentrating mostly on the latter, which they have the power to address with the enormous tools at their disposal (such as throwing a trillion or two at the coming recession), it’s at the state level where many of the most critical decisions about public health are being made.

Which has brought new attention to the nation’s governors, particularly those who seem to be rising to the occasion and offering the kind of leadership that isn’t coming from the White House.

You could see it in a spat that erupted when President Trump went after Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. She said something critical of the president’s response to the coronavirus, leading him (of course) to insult her as a “failing” governor. She responded by listing some of the many actions she has taken to address the crisis.

The New York Times put it in context:

The back-and-forth illustrated the enormous gap between the president’s response to the colossal public health crisis and that of many chief executives in the states.
Since the coronavirus began spreading, the governors have taken a lead role in issuing strict guidelines and stern warnings, asserting themselves in ways that only highlighted the initial inaction and lack of seriousness from the White House.

Unlike the president, at a moment like this one, governors don’t have the liberty of sitting around watching TV and tweeting about their (fictional) poll numbers half the day, then emerging for a news conference to praise themselves.

They have no choice but to make these kinds of decisions, when even not deciding is deciding. Are we going to close the schools or not? Do we prohibit large gatherings? Do we declare a state of emergency? What resources are we mobilizing to make sure the virus doesn’t spread in state prisons? Can we get more ventilators for our hospitals?

On that latter point, Trump told governors on a conference call, “We will be backing you, but try getting it yourselves. Point of sale, much better, much more direct if you can get it yourself.” Sure, just go down to Target and pick some up.

So while Trump’s response to the crisis has been somewhere between incompetent and catastrophic, governors have, for the most part, been acting aggressively and winning praise for it. That’s an important political point: While for Trump every appalling press conference, idiotic statement or self-congratulatory interview produces a flood of criticism from congressional Democrats and commentators such as yours truly, at the state level there has been a good degree of bipartisan cooperation and comity.

Not completely, of course; there are still arguments going on. But, in general, if you watch state politics right now, the vitriol has toned down considerably. That means people are seeing their governors acting decisively, with less in the way of attacks from the opposition than there might have been a few weeks ago. It also doesn’t hurt that divisive issues such as guns and abortion have, for the most part, been set aside as states try to address the crisis. Go to the website of major newspapers and search on any governor’s name, and you’ll see one story after another about them issuing orders and taking action.

There’s certain irony in this happening after a Democratic presidential primary in which four current or former governors ran (Jay Inslee, John Hickenlooper, Steve Bullock and Deval Patrick). All of whom were considered successful in their respective states, yet all struggled to crack 1 percent in the polls.

There was a time when governors had a distinct advantage in presidential contests because they had the kind of executive experience a senator lacked. Instead of just attending hearings and voting on bills, they make lots of decisions, manage a large bureaucracy, negotiate with a legislature and generally enact a kind of miniature presidency. It’s why so many governors, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush to Bill Clinton, moved on to the White House.

But in today’s political environment, where every issue is nationalized, it has been much more important in presidential politics to have a job that brings you to the attention of the D.C.-based media and, through them, to a national audience. That way you can build a wide following, be seen as a participant in the big political struggles, and be immediately considered a top-tier candidate worthy of notice and column inches.

The coronavirus crisis may not change that. Once it passes, the governors, even those who performed well, could find themselves retreating from national attention.

But I wouldn’t be surprised if Joe Biden, having already said he will pick a woman as his running mate, is thinking very seriously about choosing one of the Democratic governors who are looking pretty competent and decisive right about now.

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