Op-Ed

Look to Governors Races for Signs of Change

Amy Liu and Mark Muro

What are this year’s midterm elections about? Even in the most closely fought face-offs, it’s not always clear. Is Iraq the deciding issue? Or will the vote be a broader verdict on the Bush presidency or incumbency in general?

Tuesday will tell.

And yet, there’s another place to look for clues about the direction of American politics, and that is in a group of not-so-tight gubernatorial races.

Less covered than the tensest, most partisan congressional fights, the likely blowout wins of popular governors in both parties, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s race in California and Janet Napolitano’s in Arizona, propose a story line as suggestive and deserving of note as the high-profile Iraq referendums and party-line slugfests.

In these gubernatorial blowouts, the easy re-election of nimble, energetic and pragmatic governors in key states marks the success of nonideological problem solving in an era that may be growing tired of ideological partisanship.

In this respect, astute governors of both parties are going to be rewarded big time this year for breaking with convention and governing in ways that eschew narrow partisanship in order to respond with alertness and creatively to America’s 21st century challenges:

  • In Arizona, Democrat Janet Napolitano is up by more than 30 points in her re-election bid, having appealed broadly in her first term with an eclectic set of pragmatic, nonideological, sometimes bold stances. Most impressively, Napolitano has managed to merge a smart fix on the future with fiscal conservatism. Thanks to her, all-day kindergarten is a reality, as are collaborative efforts to promote the state’s competitiveness in the knowledge-based economy. And yet, Napolitano has also balanced the budget without raising taxes; favored smaller, targeted tax cuts rather than broad, budget-busting ones; and attacked government waste and inefficiency.

  • In California, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger is cruising to re-election, having turned left to occupy an almost liberal governing stance. Schwarzenegger has risen in popularity by setting aside more doctrinaire Republican initiatives and instead joining eight Northeastern governors in a greenhouse-gas-reduction initiative; winning approval for a $3 billion California Institute for Regenerative Medicine to conduct stem-cell research; increasing the minimum wage; joining Democratic legislative leaders in supporting four infrastructure-development initiatives to rebuild California’s roads, schools and communities; and continuing to push for redistricting reform.

  • In Kansas, Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sibelius is running away with her re-election bid on a pragmatic record that includes erasing a billion-dollar budget deficit without raising taxes, securing bipartisan support for increased education spending, and appointing a commission to root out government waste.

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  • And in Connecticut, Republican Gov. Jodi Rell leads her race by 20 points, having steadied a state reeling from corruption and put it on a promising course. She, too, has proved eclectic. Beyond her initial focus on high ethical standards (which led to a landmark new campaign finance law), Rell has complemented steady fiscal management with responses to the state’s many long-ignored problems. This year she used a large budget surplus to pay down pension liabilities and state debt, but she has also put billions of dollars into Connecticut’s inadequate transportation systems and funded pilot programs to provide preschool to poor children.

    Now, of course, caution is essential in attaching significance to the coming gubernatorial blowouts. Certainly, local conditions and personal character explain a good part of these and other stateside coronations. And for that matter, America’s states, by dint of their balanced-budget mandates and inherent policy responsibilities, are often America’s best laboratories of democracy.

    And yet, it is hard to ignore that this fall’s stateside outpouring of approval for a group of somewhat similar governors highlights the renewed strength of a pragmatic, hybrid, unorthodox vision of government problem solving that contrasts starkly with the polarization, gridlock and ideological fatigue in Washington.

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    Moreover, it clearly bears noting that these pragmatic governors are being rewarded with likely second terms by constituencies that supported the opposite party for president. Napolitano and Sibelius are Democrats, whose states voted for Bush in 2004. Schwarzenegger and Rell are Republicans in Kerry country. In each case, their popularity vindicates the continued salience of a shrewd centrism (at least in the states) at a time of ideological hardening in Washington.

    True, the pragmatists’ cakewalks lack the excitement and hoopla of the congressional horse races. Still, the wild popularity of the new-look governors could well hint at the post-ideological shape of things to come in what David Brooks has called the “era of what’s next.”