There was a time very recently when governors ran the states and the president ran the country. For every ribbon cutting and fish fry a governor attended in his home state, the president was doing the big stuff - signing on to international accords, negotiating with world leaders and leaning on Congress, especially the senators of his own party, to push through his policy agenda on Capitol Hill.
But those days are over, at least for now. While President Donald Trump has become engulfed in questions about his campaign’s associations with Russia and more focused on his Twitter feed and widescreen TV than the mundane, sustained work required to move an agenda, the governors of America have stepped into the void.
In ways large and small, the governors have become the new president.
Last weekend, while the chances of passing health care reform were slipping into a coma, Trump was busy at his golf club in New Jersey watching the U.S. Women’s Open and tweeting about it. Meanwhile, the governors were gathered in Rhode Island to meet with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and leaders from China, Japan, Mexico and Vietnam about trade, climate, and keeping the United States engaged on the world stage.
A New York Times story about the governors’ meetings quoted Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe saying what most of them were thinking, “What I try to tell everybody is, ’Forget the federal government. Come directly to the states.’”
It’s not at all new for governors to travel overseas for a “trade mission” to persuade one multinational company or another to locate their newest plant in South Carolina, for example, instead of Alabama. (“No taxes for 50 years!”) But it is entirely new for world leaders to negotiate directly with states on policies such as trade and climate that were once the sole domain of the federal government.
After the president said he would renegotiate NAFTA and pull the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, governors stepped up their international travel schedules to assure foreign leaders that their states still wanted to do business, even if it seemed the president did not. When the president announced he would withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord, a dozen governors signed their states on to the accord’s climate goals instead.
Even if Trump doesn’t believe in climate change, Gov. Jerry Brown of California does and he’s going to China next month to meet with President Xi Jinping to talk about it. In normal times, that’s a meeting the president would take. But times are different now. Where the president closes a door on the world stage, governors open 50 windows, and leaders like China’s Xi and Canada’s Trudeau are happy to jump through them.
As much as governors are asserting themselves internationally, their real power play has been in Washington, where it was Republican governors such as Nevada’s Brian Sandoval and Ohio’s John Kasich who were calling the shots this week - not Trump. The president made it clear where he stood on the Obamacare repeal-and-replace bill - “I cannot believe that Congress would dare to leave Washington without a beautiful new HealthCare bill fully approved and ready to go!” he tweeted last week. The month before, the PAC supporting Trump’s agenda took out attack ads against Republican Sen. Dean Heller in Nevada, who had announced he was a “no” on the initial Senate health-care bill.
But Sandoval and Kasich, among others, made sure their senators, including Heller, would not support a bill that could destabilize their states’ health-care systems and put their state houses in a huge budget hole, which the original repeal-and-replace bill was on track to do.
When Washington cuts $800 billion in projected Medicaid spending, the tough decisions about how to make up the difference end up in governors’ laps to deal with. Sandoval, Kasich and others wanted a better reason to pass that bill than, “But Trump promised .”
By Monday night, the bill was dead.
Trump is learning the hard way that just being president isn’t enough to really have power. You also have to act like a president and have the support of the American people. Right now, that sounds a lot more like the governors than the president.
While President Trump’s approval rating has plunged to 36 percent, governors - particularly Republicans - are flying high. In Morning Consult’s latest rankings, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker was at a 75 percent approval rating. Maryland’s Larry Hogan was at 73 percent. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert was at 64 percent, as was Sandoval. If you are Heller or Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who are you going to listen to first and last - the guy in the 30s or the guy in the 60s? We found out this week.
When President Trump took over the White House, the entire world waited to see how he would use his power.
But six months in, he hasn’t used as much has he has watched it drain away. So far, it seems like the biggest different between Washington pre-Trump and post-Trump is that the real power in America isn’t at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue right now. This week, it was in the governor’s mansion in Carson City, Nev.
The incredible irony is that Republicans in Washington have always preached about the imperative of “returning power to the states.” But only through sheer incompetence and failing to pass any meaningful part of their agenda have they achieved that goal.
Without so little leadership coming from Washington, 50 governors (give or take, Chris Christie) are now stepping up and acting like presidents.
The power is in the states. Hail to the chiefs.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and the founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics.