Governors are the last adults standing in American politics

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The state of political discourse in America is a disaster. Federal politics continues on a downward spiral that has been going on for decades. Official Washington is broken. It’s a place where backbiting has replaced statesmanship, the pointing finger has replaced statecraft, and name-calling has replaced 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 real leadership to transcend the socio-political chasms that separate a polarized and distrustful electorate? Where can America look to find hope?

In the West — the governors of the West.

Defying the stereotype of American politicians as ineffectual, irresponsible, and self-serving, Western governors are among the most collegial, respectful, and pragmatic leaders that populate this country’s political landscape today. No group of elected officials collaborates more effectively to produce substantial and meaningful bipartisan public policy.

Having recently led a meeting of Western Governors in Coronado and California, my hope for the future has been rekindled. Such an assembly is inspiring, if not quite cathartic. It’s a place where political baggage is checked at the door, red and blue uniforms are put away, and a handful of smart and savvy problem-solvers turn their attention to some of the most pressing challenges facing the region and the nation. .

With their attention so engaged, the governors of Western states are proceeding with something that is, unfortunately, remarkable for its rarity. They work together, across party lines and ideological divides, to develop common-sense policies, strategies and solutions. At their recent meeting, the governors worked to address the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous peoples, the challenges of computer chips 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 giving each other sharp elbows, calling each other names or consulting polls. Working on important issues, which affect real people in the real world, they see no benefit in demonizing other governors who may be from a different party but who face the same challenges, threats and opportunities as them.

Western governors share a number of attributes that explain their relative bipartisanship and effectiveness. On the one hand, they are the chief executives of their states – they are senior executives who have to make things work. Effective leaders of large organizations (like states) tend to be more pragmatic than ideological. In tackling complex and multidimensional problems, practicality wins out over political rigidity every time.

On the other hand, these governors do not compete with each other. Regardless of their party affiliation, they have all walked similar paths and find themselves facing similar challenges – whether it’s distributing personal protective equipment, responding to catastrophic wildfires or containment of invasive species threatening Western landscapes. Clearly, governors have much to gain by working and collaborating with each other. They learn from each other’s experiences. They alert each other to problems and threats that may be imminent. They shamelessly appropriate each other’s innovations and they share the unusual bonhomie that comes with being members of a very small club. While the benefits of cooperation are obvious, the benefits of shooting each other for 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 it’s too much to expect, governors will still help save our country as the portfolio of state and federal powers is rebalanced to better reflect the intent of the founders.

The genius of American democracy rests not only on the separation between the branches of government (the executive, the legislature and the judiciary), but also on the division of power between the national government and the states, also known as federalism. In the American version of federalism, the powers of the federal government are narrow, enumerated and defined. State powers, on the other hand, are broad and undefined and encompass all powers of governance not specifically granted to the federal government by the US Constitution.

Over time, the balance of power shifted dramatically toward the federal government and away from the states. This reality is reflected in the immensity of the size, scope, cost and complexity (not to mention ungovernability) of the federal juggernaut. Returning greater authority to states would put more decisions in the hands of governors, leaders who are closer to citizens and intimately familiar with their state’s environment, economy, and culture. Furthermore, a genuine partnership between the states and the federal government would result in more effective and sustainable policy, resulting in a stronger and more resilient nation.

For the past two years, Western state governors have been at the heart of the COVID-19 response, working to protect their people and economies. They were called upon to make incredibly difficult decisions – life or death decisions – and they bore that burden with sobriety and grace.

At the same time, their other heavy responsibilities have not magically disappeared. They still had natural disasters to deal with, students to educate and budgets to balance. And through it all, they held their heads high and 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 scene.

Jim Ogsbury is executive director of the Western Governors’ Association. He has previously served as Legislative Director of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns and Clerk and Staff Director of the US House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development.

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