Governors are the last adults standing in American politics
The state of political discourse in America is a disaster. The federal polity continues on a downward spiral that has persisted for decades. Official Washington is broken. It is a place where backbiting has supplanted statesmanship, finger-pointing has replaced statecraft and name-calling has superseded diplomacy. Many have despaired of the ship of state’s ability to right itself. Is bipartisanship dead? Is compromise a quaint relic of a distant past? Is it possible for true leadership to transcend the socio-political chasms separating a polarized and suspicious electorate? Where can America look to find hope?
To the West — the governors of the West.
Defying the stereotype of American politicians as ineffective, feckless and self-interested, Western governors are among the most collegial, respectful and pragmatic leaders currently populating this country’s political landscape. No group of elected officials more effectively collaborates to produce substantive and significant bipartisan public policy.
Having recently managed a meeting of Western governors in Coronado and California, my hopefulness for the future has been replenished. Such an assembly is inspiring, if not altogether cathartic. It is a place where political baggage is checked at the door, red and blue uniforms are tucked away, and a clutch of smart and savvy problem-solvers turn their attention to some of the most urgent challenges facing the region and nation.
With their attention so engaged, governors of western states proceed to do something that is, sadly, remarkable for its rarity. They work together, across party lines and ideological divisions, to develop common-sense policies, strategies and solutions. At their recent meeting, the governors worked to address the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous people, computer chip challenges in a high-tech economy and emergency preparedness. They negotiated detailed policy resolutions on energy, air quality, cybersecurity and workforce development.
And they did it all without throwing sharp elbows, calling each other names or consulting polls. Working on issues that matter, that affect real people in the real world, they apprehend no advantage in demonizing other governors who may be of a different party but who face the same challenges, threats and opportunities as they do.
Western governors share a number of attributes that account for their relative bipartisanship and effectiveness. For one thing, they are the chief executive officers of their states — they are senior managers who need to make things work. Effective leaders of large organizations (like states) tend to be more pragmatic than ideological. In addressing complex and multidimensional problems, practicality beats political rigidity every time.
For another thing, these governors are not running against each other. Regardless of party affiliation, they have all traversed similar paths and find themselves facing similar challenges – whether those involve the distribution of personal protective equipment, response to catastrophic wildfires or containment of invasive species threatening western landscapes. It is evident that governors have much to gain by working with and collaborating with one another. They learn from each other’s experiences. They alert each other to issues and threats that may be just around the bend. They unabashedly appropriate innovations from each other and they share the unusual bonhomie that comes with being members of a very small club. While the advantages of cooperation are apparent, the benefits of sniping at each other to score political points are much less so.
Other elected officials across the country would do well to emulate the example of Western governors. But even if that is too much to expect, governors will still contribute to the rescue of our country to the extent the portfolio of state and federal power is rebalanced to better reflect the intent of the founders.
The genius of American democracy is predicated not only upon the separation between branches of government (the executive, legislature and judiciary) but also upon the division of power between the national government and states, also known as federalism. Under the American version of federalism, the powers of the federal government are narrow, enumerated and defined. The powers of the states, on the other hand, are vast and indefinite and encompass all powers of governance not specifically bestowed to the federal government by the U.S. Constitution.
Over time, the balance of power has shifted dramatically toward the federal government and away from the states. This reality is reflected in the vast size, scope, cost and complexity (not to mention ungovernability) of the federal behemoth. Restoring a greater measure of authority to the states would place more decisions in the hands of governors, leaders who are closer to the people and have intimate knowledge of their states’ environments, economies and cultures. Also, an authentic partnership between the states and federal government would result in more effective and durable policy, resulting in a stronger and more resilient nation.
Throughout the past couple of years, governors in western states have been at the point of the spear of COVID-19 response, working to protect their people and their economies. They have been called upon to make incredibly difficult decisions — life and death decisions — and they have borne that burden with sobriety and grace.
At the same time, their other weighty responsibilities did not magically disappear. They have still had natural disasters to manage, students to educate and budgets to balance. And through it all, they have kept their heads high and have somehow managed to maintain their optimism, energy, enthusiasm and humor.
I am confident that Western governors will emerge from their collective emergency experience stronger, more united, and more energized than ever. And I better be right about that, because governors are the last adults standing on the American political stage.
Jim Ogsbury is executive director of the Western Governors’ Association. He previously served as legislative director for the League of Arizona Cities and Towns and as the clerk and staff director for the U.S. House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development.
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