Thursday, July 28, 2005

Idea Men (and Women)

DES MOINES. - What struck me most about the recent summer meeting of the nation’s governors here was the absence of the poisonous and melodramatic political rhetoric that has become an epidemic virtually every other place in America, and especially in the capital.

Not that the 30 or so governors who attended aren’t members of political parties or lack partisan instincts.

But unlike Congress, these men and women cannot depend on rhetoric or parliamentary maneuvering to do their jobs — that is, to solve the acute economic, health and social problems in their states. Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas says the folks in Washington are “polarized and paralyzed.” That was the nastiest it got. Mr. Huckabee, a Republican and incoming National Governors Association chair, and Democratic Gov. Mark Warner, the outgoing NGA chair, then proceeded to exchange warm compliments. No matter that, in three years, they might be facing each other as part of the opposing tickets for the next presidential race.

I came to Des Moines to get an early look at those governors in both parties who might be candidates for president and vice president in 2008. I have written for some time now that I think the nominees in 2008 are most likely to come from the ranks of those who face daily the nuts and bolts of the problems that face America, not from the gaggle of senators who usually are the frontrunners in the earliest stages of the campaign.

Most of the frequently named hopefuls were there. Mr. Warner, Mr. Huckabee and Govs. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, George Pataki of New York, Bill Richardson of New Mexico, Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, Haley Barbour of Mississippi and host Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa. But there were also several other interesting governors here, including some female governors: Jennifer Granholm of Michigan, Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas and Ruth Ann Minner of Delaware. And then there was Gov. Brian Schweitzer of Montana.

Mr. Schweitzer is a cowboy who speaks Arabic and a soil scientist who thinks he can solve America’s energy problems without a single barrel of foreign oil. He blasts all lobbyists, defends the principle of lowering taxes and is a Democrat. Don’t try to digest all that in a few moments. We will have to come back to him in another column.

Mrs. Minner is a great grandmother who raised her three kids by herself, ran a successful business with her second husband, served four terms in the state house, three terms as a state senator, two terms as lieutenant governor and has twice been elected governor. At the NGA meeting square-table discussion on transportation, I noticed her for the first time. Mrs. Minner, 70, did not speak until Mr. Warner, in response to a presentation, said: “We all know that trucks are what are ruining our interstate highways.” Immediately, Governor Minner’s hand went up like a schoolgirl’s. Ruth Ann? Warner warily asked. She said, “I don’t want to contradict my friend Governor Warner, but I want him and everyone else here to know that trucks do not wear out our roads.” She then explained quickly, technically and lucidly just why this was so. It turned out that the business she ran with her husband had been a trucking business. The we-know-all-about-cars-and-trucks boys in the room gasped that a great-grandmother had set them straight.

It’s so far until 2008 that I won’t even try to say more than that there are governors here who bear watching. Mr. Warner is a centrist Democrat who has worked very successfully with a Republican legislature (echoes from Texas in 2000?). He is articulate without being a wonk, and was willing in his year as NGA chair to make the reform of high-school education his principle issue. It wasn’t a flashy issue, but it was something every American parent can relate to. He says “it is time we acknowledge we’re the minority party in America, and do something about it.” He went on: “Left-right politics doesn’t work any more.” He contends that the new paradigm is “future-past politics.” In order for the Democrats to win, “We have to get to the future first. We have to re-invent ourselves. We have to be entrepreneurial.” A southern Democratic governor, Mr. Warner could represent a return to the successful Clintonian center.

So could Mr. Vilsack, who has just been elected chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, breeding ground of Bill Clinton, Joe Lieberman and Al Gore. As one component of “Minnewisowa” (the new political superstate of Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin), Mr. Vilsack offers Democrats a chance to solidify their support in this Midwest region, which has been up for grabs in the past several elections.

-This article originally appeared in The Washington Times on July 28th, 2005.