Governors find their moment — and peril

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It is sometimes called the best job in American politics. The nation’s governors have a degree of prestige, autonomy and agenda-setting power in their states that far surpasses anything enjoyed by the typical politician.

In almost every state, they also get to live in an elegant mansion as part of the bargain.

For at least the next year — on the front lines of the public health and economic wreckage caused by the coronavirus — anyone holding one of these supposed dream jobs is going to have some long nights that might more closely resemble nightmares.

The 50 governors now have a centrality in American life that exceeds anything seen in generations. Every path forward for the country, from opening schools to reviving the economy and some semblance of normal routines, travels through their offices. But with the pandemic now at the six-month mark — and its lasting consequences likely to be several times that length — this new influence comes freighted with paradox:

— In many states, governors like New York’s Andrew Cuomo have seen their popularity surge by 20 and 30 percentage points as voters express approval of strong executive actions and empathetic leadership styles. But there is mounting evidence that these increases could prove highly perishable. Hard-won gains in bringing the viral transmission to heel in places like California have been reversed quickly with new outbreaks. States are facing massive budget shortfalls that will lead to deep and widespread cuts in services. Twenty percent cuts are being raised as a possibility in Albany, and 15 percent one state over in Trenton — hardly the type of moves that will engender affection toward governors.

— The broad agenda-setting power prized by governors is about to narrow considerably. In many places, ideas that seem like extracurricular assignments or require new funds are crowded out by the imperative of pandemic recovery. There’s simply too much competition for time and money.

— Far from being autonomous leaders, the governors are staring at a new reality: Vastly increased dependence on the federal government. The Illinois treasurer this week warned of an “economic tidal wave” heading toward state governments, which are collectively pleading for $500 billion in assistance in the latest pandemic rescue package. It is a conceit of governors — probably an accurate one in most cases — that they practice a different and superior brand of politics than is the norm in Washington. It is a role more concerned with actions than words, less concerned with abstract battles over ideology and identity than with the concrete human dimensions of problems. In the current climate, governors will have to care a lot about, and become good at navigating, the politics of Washington they profess to disdain.

It is this intersection between the national capital and 50 state capitals that will be a principal theme for POLITICO’s The Fifty, a new series that examines the ways in which governors, mayors and other political figures are shaping the nation’s future. The pandemic, more than any crisis in recent memory, has an intimate edge. It affects not just some citizens, but virtually every citizen, in an immediate and tangible way at work and home. As state and local governments are much closer to the stuff of daily life — and have more direct responsibility for public health — so too will they be the more relevant and vibrant arenas for creating post-pandemic America.

In interviews in recent days, several governors told POLITICO they have found their new circumstances — and the re-ordering of their own personal and political priorities — to be all-consuming.

“It’s tremendously frustrating in terms of my time and my focus,” Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said in an interview. “I didn’t run for governor thinking I was going to spend every day now for six months focused on the most basic thing of all, which is keeping people alive.”

“A global pandemic was not on the radar when I ran for governor,” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told POLITICO. For Whitmer, the coronavirus, the recession that ensued, the national trauma over racial disparities after the George Floyd killing, and devastating floods in her state have in some way melded into a singular, extreme moment: “In ordinary times, one of these crises would consume all your energy. And yet, right now, we have to be able to manage all of these crises and do the day-to-day work of state government. We have an ambitious agenda that we still plan to pursue, but certainly this has taken all of our focus getting through these four crises that have simultaneously occurred.”

“I would say it is, without question, the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a former top executive at Goldman Sachs, said in an interview. “There’s no question about it. When I was in the private sector, I was typically the person who went in to clean things up. I was a U.S. ambassador to Germany for things like Wikileaks and the financial crisis of 2008, 2009 and beyond. Those weren’t easy, but this is at another level.”

Putting their agendas ‘on ice’

Murphy offers a window into one of the most salient features of state governance in 2020: He’s got more political popularity than ever, but limited flexibility on policy.

The liberal first-term Democrat had spent the first two years feuding with other factions of his party and had an approval rating stuck in the 40s. Support shot up above 70 percent after the coronavirus arrived in the spring, his highest ever, and he has kept a pandemic approval in the high 60s. The governor has inoculated himself politically to the point where even his opponents have struggled to capitalize on real problems in his administration’s coronavirus response. A semi-veiled threat of a primary challenge, made a year ago by the most influential power broker in the state, is now laughed off.

But the test of whether Murphy can keep his popularity high will come over the next few months as the state Legislature and governor work on a budget that’s due Sept. 30. New Jersey has already agreed to borrow billions of dollars to temporarily close the state’s budget gap.

Murphy has already asked cabinet members to draw up plans for 15 percent cuts in their departments and school aid — which directly affects property taxes and makes up a third of the state budget — has faced major cuts. Further cuts to school aid could force teacher layoffs that would anger the New Jersey Education Association, the largest public union in the state and Murphy’s biggest political ally.

“I got elected, in part, to get the economy both growing and getting fair again, but also to fix the bad behavior in the state government,” he said. “We have made enormous progress on both the stronger, the fairer, the fixing part of it. And a lot of that has to be put on ice. There’s just no question about it.”

Mike DuHaime, a Republican consultant who advised Murphy’s controversy-pocked predecessor, Chris Christie, acknowledged that the Democrat’s recent success in bringing infection rates down has given him “political capital.” Still, he added, “Political capital is only worth something if you spend it. … He’s going to likely have to spend it on this budget cycle.”

That’s arguably a better problem than one faced by Murphy’s Republican counterpart in Florida. In the first months of the pandemic, Gov. Ron DeSantis lashed out at the media and public health experts who questioned relatively lax shutdown and social distancing policies. That gamble backfired as infections rose and the state is currently one of the nation’s most afflicted. DeSantis’s once-enviable job approval ratings have dipped at least 17 points since last year, now with a majority of voters disliking his performance.

This means he’ll be confronting a budget crisis without much political leverage in reserve.

In the last fiscal year, the state has missed revenue estimates by $1.9 billion, a drop driven nearly exclusively by coronavirus-related shutdowns.

Pritzker took a different path in Illinois. He issued a stay-home order long before the state’s outbreak reached the level it had when most other states locked down. He took the lead in explaining data-backed decisions during his daily briefings and was one of the first leaders to personally don a mask in April.

Still, few savvy politicians would take the hand Pritzker’s been dealt. Illinois has the worst credit rating in the nation — at a moment when it urgently needs to borrow money. He signed a budget with a $6 billion gap between revenue and expenses that was filled with loans for now as the state desperately pleads for federal relief. Pritzker says layoffs are coming without significant help.

‘Forced to behave more responsibly‘

If there is one lesson about pandemic politics as they play out in the states, it is that governors should be wary about boasting of their results — infection rates and poll ratings are both fluid.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican whose state was among those that seemed to avoid the worst of the coronavirus in the spring only to be crushed by it when it arrived in the sunbelt in June, has gone from 57 percent of voters approving of his pandemic response in early May to just 30 percent in July. That’s less support than the 38 percent in the state who approve of Trump’s pandemic handling, making Ducey one of only four governors who has worse marks in emergency management than the president. Ducey, like others facing similar circumstances, can blame in part a speedy reopening strategy, according to a multi-university consortium that is studying state responses to the pandemic. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom, who got favorable publicity for an aggressive response early, is now getting roughed up as cases rise but has so far held on to a high approval.

As states become a focal point of pandemic policy, governors could again rise to a focal point of national policy. Over 32 years between the elections of 1976 and 2008, the White House was occupied all but four years by someone who arrived at the presidency by way of a governorship.

Since then, however, the presidency has been occupied by two very different leaders who vaulted to power for a similar reason: their ability to translate celebrity personas into electoral results. Although Barack Obama served in the state legislature in Illinois, neither he nor Donald Trump ever proved executive credentials by running a state. Might the current moment put a new premium on these credentials?

On Wednesday, Cuomo will take over from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan as head of the National Governors Association. (Hogan, a Republican, has been nearly as critical of Trump’s pandemic performance as Cuomo.) Cuomo has said he’s not running for president or angling for a federal position.

But he has seen both his New York and national profile rise.

In February, slogging through a third term, he had had a favorability rating of 44 percent. By the end of March, as he clawed his way through the pandemic engulfing the state, his favorability had jumped to 71 percent, its highest level in seven years, boosted by nods from legions of voters — even Republicans — who had soured on the third-term Democrat long ago. A staggering 87 percent of all voters approved of his handling of the pandemic.

Even if Cuomo is sincere about not intending to run, he’s young enough by today’s standards to eye the next cycle, and it seems virtually certain that others — including Newsom, Hogan and DeSantis (if his fortunes improve) — will be vying for the national stage, and hoping to trumpet reputations as people who solve problems rather than argue about them.

“Governors are almost forced to behave more responsibly,” said William Galston, who runs the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program in Washington. “It’s much harder for governors. “Even if their states are deep red or deep blue, governors have to be doers, not just talkers. They’re held responsible for results in a very direct way.”

That is true even when those results are only partly within a governor’s control. Rarely has the partnership between Washington and 50 state counterparts been more consequential.

“In a sense, it's the federal government's responsibility to deal with a big shock to the system like this, but the average citizen isn't going to know,” said David Lazer, a political scientist and computer scientist at Northeastern University, who is involved with the multi-university consortium studying the states. “There is this narrative, which Cuomo has in some ways has encouraged, which is, ‘the buck stops with me.’ Sometimes the buck doesn't really stop with him and he'll still get the blame or the credit.’”

This article is part of The Fifty, a new POLITICO series that looks at how state and local leaders are responding to current national challenges, from the pandemic to the economic crisis to the reckoning with race. More coverage of these issues here.

John Harris, Matt Friedman, Matt Dixon and Jeremy B. White contributed to this report.

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