The Washington Post's front page story on the
Republican Governors Association meeting last week carried the headline
"Republican Governors Meet, Glumly." After the jump, the Post
bannered its account, "Doom and Gloom at GOP Governors' Meeting."
The gathering didn't seem particularly doomish and gloomish
to me. It's true that the governors were realistic about the GOP defeats of
2006 and 2008. As Louisiana's Bobby Jindal said, "They fired us with
cause." But this kind of candor from an elected official, in other
circumstances, would have warranted a headline like "Candor,
Self-Criticism Mark Governors' Meeting" from the Post. Those other
circumstances, I suppose, would have been that it was a Democratic governors'
The mood in Miami was hardheaded and forward-looking. The
governors, especially in private, were anticipating with some pleasure the
prospect of governing freed of the shadow of either a Republican Congress or a
Republican White House. They know their efforts in state capitals will help
redefine the party nationally.
They're likely to be the stars of the party over the next
few years--those who govern successfully and show an ability to get reelected.
And Republicans could pick up governorships in states like Virginia in 2009 and
Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan in 2010--in all of which they have promising
candidates. Pickups in any of these states would make governors even more
central to the future of the GOP. And they figure one of their number will
likely be the presidential nominee in 2012. All of this made them pretty
One pillar of any Republican comeback will surely be
successful practical governance at the state level. The Republican revival of
the early and mid-1990s--after the across-the-board defeat of 1992, when the
first Bush administration was booted out with 38 percent of the vote--was due
in part to the examples of effective state governance by Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin
and John Engler in Michigan, to say nothing of Rudy Giuliani's efforts in New
York City. Then a governor, George W. Bush, retook the White House in 2000.
And, after the previous Democratic takeover of the White
House, in 1976, it was a former governor, Ronald Reagan, who led the comeback
and took the presidency. So history suggests that statehouses are where a lot
of the GOP action will be over the next four years.
But the examples of the late 1970s and the early 1990s
suggest something else, too. GOP revivals depend on fresh and bold thinking at
the national level. Figures like Jack Kemp redefined Republican economic policy
between 1977 and 1980. By 1994, Newt Gingrich and Co. had brought into being a
very different Republican party from that of the last days of the first Bush
administration. Who are the Kemps and Gingriches today? The field is wide open
for the ambitious and the daring.
And, of course, politics isn't just--or even mostly--about
ideas. It's also about political leadership. To see Sarah Palin at the
Republican Governors Association was to wonder at a natural politician. Among
her peers she may be in a class by herself--like Reagan or Barack Obama. Can
she rise to the occasion? The media remain desperate to deny that she can, and
even to deny her a chance to try.
the Post asserted in its article on the Republican governors that
"some polling at the end of the campaign suggested Palin was a drag on the
ticket." But the one polling question that focused on that most directly
would suggest she was not. In the national exit poll, slightly more than half
the voters said John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin was not a factor at all or
was a minor factor in their vote. McCain lost those voters, 53 to 45 percent.
Amazingly, 41 percent said the Palin choice was an important factor in their
vote. McCain won those voters 51 to 48 percent. It's also the case that
McCain's best stretch was the two weeks in early September after he picked
Palin. So it seems unlikely that Palin hurt McCain's chances.
Palin is a phenomenon, and her future is unpredictable.
There are plenty of other Republican governors and ex-governors who would be
competent and plausible nominees in 2012. The candidate in 2012 is unlikely to
be the problem. The question is whether, at the national level, Republicans
will have a compelling platform to run on.
After a financial meltdown leading to a severe
recession on the Republican watch, and the flailing response of the Bush
administration and the incoherence of congressional Republicans, one area that
invites urgent new thinking is economic policy. It will be important, over the
next four years, to fight to save free-market capitalism from the Obama
administration. It will be almost as important--and more interesting--to figure
out how to save capitalism from its own worst aspects and most damaging