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' meeting.
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 upbeat.
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.
Thus 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 tendencies.