From the election of Jimmy Carter to the start of George W. Bush’s presidency, innovative governors largely drove the nation’s domestic discussion. Welfare reform. School accountability. Reinventing government. Those and other issues that drove the headlines flowed out of capitals like Little Rock, Austin, Sacramento and Atlanta.
But then the domestic conversation mostly shifted back to Washington after 9/11 and remained there through last November’s elections. The shift was largely because homeland security, immigration reform and the federal deficit became such big issues. But it also was because the Obama administration led with stimulus packages and health care reforms that put Washington front and central.
Now, though, we are entering a period where political power is flowing back to the states. And here is the irony: governors are regaining clout because they are taking the lead on deficit issues, which usually have been a Washington matter.
The annual meeting of the nation’s governors in Washington underscored the latest shift. On Sunday morning, when most Americans are focused on something other than public finance, governors gathered around conference tables to listen to heavy-duty discussions about their budgets, including how to control Medicaid costs.
That latter one really is a monster. In almost every state, the percentages of their budgets that are devoted to Medicaid are rising at sharp rates. Which is why governors from both parties were asking for more freedom from Washington to manage Medicaid, which is a federal/state program.
Of course, the big issue of the moment are the costs states face with their public employee unions. Ground Zero is in Wisconsin, but the issue is equally prominent in big-states like California, Michigan and New York.
Scott Walker, Wisconsin’s governor, has famously challenged the right of public employee unions to collectively bargain. His death-to-the-unions approach drew long lines of union picketers in front of the J.W. Marriott Hotel where the governors met. (Walker remained behind in Wisconsin, appearing at the governors’ convention only through a squawk box.)
But his approach is not the only one. Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown of California is seeking big concessions from the unions. And Michigan’s GOP Gov. Rick Snyder is taking the same tack: seek concessions on how much states spend on their public workers, but don’t try to break the unions’ back.
I’m in the latter camp because wringing out concessions is more likely to occur in most states than cracking the unions. I loved what Snyder told The Washington Post’s Dan Balz: “My model is getting results. And that’s how I want to speak to people. Where’s the common ground?”
Getting results about their deficits is why watching the governors is so fascinating once again. If some of their states show courage and control their spending and reform their tax codes, they will lay the predicate for Washington to do the same.
And, for Republicans, fiscal results will lead to a bumper crop of national leaders. GOP governors Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Chris Christie of New Jersey already are generating 2012 buzz. Time’s Joe Klein wrote recently that Daniels is the Republican that Obama should most worry about as a challenger.
I still think Obama will be hard to beat, largely because of his star quality. But results-oriented governors from both parties will increasingly drive the domestic conversation if they tame their budgets. That will be true no matter how the 2012 race sets up.
The states are back in the game.
• McKenzie is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News.