Stateline Story

Commentary: Governors Beat White House Hopefuls as Agents of Change

It's a wonder how long it took some of the presidential candidates to realize voters are sick and tired of Washington DC's dawdling on a variety of issues that affect our lives. Even Republican White House hopefuls have grasped the unrest and are echoing Democrat Barack Obama's promise of "change."

If the candidates had been listening more carefully, they might have gotten it a lot sooner. The evidence was there all along in the way many states, led by innovative governors, are moving forward on issues like health care, immigration and global warming.

The pragmatic problem-solving going on in many of the 50 state capitols is a refreshing change from the exasperating dysfunction of the federal government.

Proactive governors, such as California Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, could not have moved so aggressively without the implicit support of their constituents. The actor-turned-governor earned his nickname, "the Governator," by plunging headlong into some of his state's most difficult problems.

Schwarzenegger is still pushing a plan to provide near-universal health care that could become a model for the nation despite a major setback last month in the California Senate. He's pushing innovative education initiatives. He even cut a deal with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair on global warming - all this as federal politicians and policymakers remain mired in partisan bickering.

What's most remarkable is that Schwarzenegger is far from unique. Many governors, notably including those in Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine, are leading their states to find practical solutions to critical problems such as how to fix a health care system that is too costly and leaves people out. They're doing it by forging bipartisan alliances in their state legislatures.

As Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas put it: "There really aren't 'red' and 'blue' states but American states, and people want leaders they can trust, who they share vision and values (with)."

Yes, there's plenty of partisan bickering and political chicanery at the state level: a budget deadlock in Michigan that briefly brought state government to a near standstill last year, the corruption scandal that clouded the work of the Alaska Legislature and the political skullduggery that seems endemic in states like Illinois, Pennsylvania and Texas are among examples.

But on the overarching public policy issues of our day - health care, the education of our children, global warming, and, perhaps most remarkably, the care of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars - states are in the vanguard.

Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine already are experimenting with making access to doctors and hospitals more widely available and more financially sustainable. California wants to do so.

And the federal No Child Left Behind Act notwithstanding, it's states that are innovating to elevate learning standards with programs as fundamental as expanding pre-kindergarten education and as creative as linking high school attendance to driving privileges.

California, the world's 12 th largest carbon emitter, is in the forefront in dealing with causes of climate change. Schwarzenegger's groundbreaking agreement with Blair last August to fight global warming was viewed as part of a broader effort to circumvent federal objections to state regulation of greenhouse-gas emissions. It was also widely interpreted as a slap at the Bush administration's laissez-faire attitude toward what most reputable scientists regard as the leading environmental challenge of the 21 st century.

Most unusual from a historic standpoint is the states' assertive role in aiding the nation's returning warriors - unusual but not surprising, given that state-based National Guard units are involved in combat at a level unseen since World War II. Minnesota and Illinois are pioneering programs designed to help demobilized service members make a sometimes difficult emotional transition to the less lethal vagaries of civilian life, but they are just two of the dozens of states that have stepped up to meet what until this era has been largely a federal responsibility.

In a recent column for Stateline.org , Raymond C. Scheppach, executive director of the National Governors Association, said what's happening in the states is a manifestation of the yin and yang of federalism.

"Throughout our history there has been a federalism cycle, where at times governors and states have provided national policy leadership, and at other times that leadership has come from the president and Congress," Scheppach wrote. "Underlying this cycle, however, was a clear trend in the 20 th century toward increased federal involvement in U.S. domestic policy. As we progress into the 21 st century, several factors suggest we may be coming full circle, with leadership on domestic issues swinging back to states."

Maybe the hothouse atmosphere of national politics also has something to do with making states the place to look if you want to see government that works. It's probably easier to get things done in an environment where TV shout shows don't dumb down profound discourse to sound bites, and where every Tom, Dick, Jane and Harry isn't running for president or positioning themselves for the next race.