LOS ANGELES – Washington these days is the symbol of governmental failure, rocked by a shutdown, legislative paralysis and the disastrous debut of President Obama’s health care program. Public opinion of Obama and members of Congress is on a steady decline.
But something different is taking place in statehouses.
At a time when Obama and members of Congress are mired in partisanship and gridlock, many governors – starting with Chris Christie of New Jersey, a Republican re-elected by an overwhelming margin Tuesday, as well the chief executives of such states as Arkansas, California, Nevada, New Mexico, New York and Ohio – are showing that it is possible to be successful in elected office, even in this era.
These chief executives are, at least compared with Washington, capable and popular leaders, pushing through major legislation and figuring out ways, with mixed success, to avoid the partisan wrangling that has come to symbolize Washington.
Part of this is cyclical. As a rule, governors look bad during an economic downturn, as they are identified with spending cuts or tax increases to balance budgets, and are bold and in command during an economic rebound. And some governors are certainly struggling, be it Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, a Republican who failed to get his legislature to back him on expanding Medicaid coverage, or Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois, a Democrat who is widely unpopular after a failed effort to change pension laws there.
Yet the contrast these days appears as strong as any in memory, reflecting not only the breakdown in Washington but also a particularly activist class of governors, often empowered by having a state legislature controlled by a single party as they enact the kind of crisp agenda that has eluded both parties in Washington.
“Right now, governors are the most popular political players in the country – mainly because of the dysfunction in Washington and because the public perceives governors as being bipartisan, pragmatic and able to work things out,” said Bill Richardson, a former governor of New Mexico and a Democratic candidate for president in 2008. “Governors are the hot political items right now.”
The difference is reflected in polling. In the latest CBS News poll, 85 percent of respondents expressed disapproval of the performance of Congress, and 49 percent expressed approval of Obama. By contrast, less than a third of respondents in a variety of state polls said they disapproved of the performance of governors like Christie; Jerry Brown of California, a Democrat; Bill Haslam of Tennessee, a Republican; or Mike Beebe of Arkansas, a Democrat.
Many governors said they were intent on making certain that their parties were not defined entirely by their compatriots in the nation’s capital. Christie, who will take over leadership of the Republican Governors Association this month, said in an interview that it was especially imperative that Republicans not be defined by their deeply unpopular congressional wing.
“We all talk about the fact that we’re actually accomplishing things and the people in Washington, D.C., are frustrating people,” said Christie, recounting his conversations with other Republican governors. “We need to be out there talking about our successes to help to build the brand of our party nationally beyond the capitals and have it replace the Washington, D.C., brand.”
The disparity could have implications for the 2016 presidential race. It suggests some of the challenges that Hillary Rodham Clinton, a former senator and secretary of state, could face should she end up running against a governor like Christie. Historically, governors have tended to be much more successful presidential candidates, even at moments when animosity toward Washington has not been at this level.
Governors, of course, have always loved to beat up on Congress – drawing arguably self-serving, chest-thumping comparisons – and rarely more than these days. “When you look at D.C. now, a member will write a letter, call for a hearing and they’ll call that a day,” said Gov. Jay Nixon of Missouri, a Democrat.
Gov. John R. Kasich, an Ohio Republican who served more than 20 years in Congress, ticked off a list of what he viewed as his key accomplishments as governor, from pulling the state out of a deep deficit to investing in road building without federal assistance and overseeing a significant increase in employment.
“What’s not to like, right?” Kasich said. “And they can’t even pass a highway bill there.”
Brown, who has been widely praised for pushing through laws on education, taxes and the environment in California, said in an interview that in all 50 states, “there is more dynamism and more openness and more capacity to deal with change, to deal with problems.”
Even before the advent of this era of sharp partisanship, governors have proved to be more successful in getting programs passed. Thad Kousser, an associate professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego and the co-author of the book “The Power of American Governors,” published by Cambridge University Press last year, estimated that governors win approval of more than half of their initiatives, compared with 45 percent for presidents.
“Governors have the latitude to make their own policy in their own state,” Kousser said. “They don’t have to go back to Washington, D.C., and toe their party line on these issues. If they want to conduct immigration, they conduct immigration. If they want to stay away from gay rights, they can do that.”
Governors and analysts pointed to a host of reasons state executives are faring better than members of Congress these days. For one thing, they are forced to work more closely with their legislatures, if only because of the close confinement of the states and capitals, said Susana Martinez, a Republican who is the governor of New Mexico. “The lack of relationship building, the lack of conversation, the lack of problem solving – people are tired of that,” she said.
Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas, a Republican who was first elected to his post in 2010 after serving in Congress for 16 years, said the difference between Topeka and Washington was in how much the system could bear. “At a state level, you can build consensus around what you need to do and get it done,” said Brownback, who has changed his state’s tax and state employee pension structure. “In Washington, the system is just so big.”
Gov. Jack Markell of Delaware, a Democrat who just ended his term as the chairman of the National Governors Association, said governors also faced sterner political consequences for inaction.
“If we don’t perform, we get thrown out of office; governors cannot be gerrymandered,” he said. “In Washington, if you’re properly ideologically aligned for your state or district, you’re often given a pass.”