One big difference between governors and congressmen is that governors are out there on the front lines, dealing with the real everyday needs of their citizens. Whereas members of Congress can afford to retreat into ideology, governors have no such luxury.
Which brings us to Charlie Crist, the popular Republican governor of Florida, who today may well be known nationwide for two things: (a) the deepest tan since George Hamilton, and (b) the man-hug that he shared on Tuesday with President Obama.
Crist epitomizes the gap that separates Republican governors (who are trying desperately to safeguard the welfare of their citizens), and Republican members of Congress (who are opposing the Obama stimulus package that would help the governors safeguard the welfare of their citizens). Many of the Republican governors face huge budget deficits, thanks to the recession; they would welcome the infusion of federal money, which would allow them to keep paying (among others) the teachers and the firefighters and the unemployment checks of the jobless.
In other words, governors have to be practical. They can't take refuge in right-wing talking points that play well on the cable network talkfests, where ideological conflict makes for good TV.
Crist shared a stage with Obama in Florida yesterday, and it's hardly because Obama currently enjoys a 64 percent approval rating in Florida polls. Crist did it because he's trying to be practical. In part because the rash of home foreclosures has triggered a major downturn in property taxes, Florida is reportedly facing a budget deficit of $6 billion next year. Crist, like most governors, is required to balance the state budget, which means that various public payrolls, especially schools, have already been slashed. For instance, the state-financed University of Florida has already announced the elimination of 430 faculty and staff positions. (Meanwhile, back in Washington the other day, a Republican senator insisted on national TV that states are not going to institute public sector layoffs, and he insisted that anyone who says it's so is merely "fear-mongering.")
So what's a governor to do? The answer is: Take the money. The Obama recovery package - which is ridiculed by the congressional GOP as "pork" - would bring real money to Florida. Like maybe $10 billion or so. Crist yesterday urged passage of the package: "It is important that we do so to help education, to help our infrastructure, and to help health care for those who need it most, the most vulnerable among us...It's very tangible to me."
The entire Florida GOP congressional delegation has voted No thus far, despite Crist's entreaties. Senator Mel Martinez explains his disagreements with Crist this way: "He's looking at the bill from a governor's perspective."
Well, that's the point, isn't it? As Obama said yesterday, in a jab at the congressional GOP, "The thing about governors is, they understand our economic crisis in a way that maybe sometimes folks a little more removed don't understand." Which is why the bipartisan National Governors Association has endorsed the basic thrust of the recovery package, and has urged speedy passage.
And which is why four Republican governors (Crist, California's Arnold Schwarzenegger, Connecticut's Rodi Rell, and Vermont's Jim Douglas) have joined 14 of their Democratic counterparts in signing a letter to Obama endorsing the package.
Regarding those four Republican signees, the predictable retort is that the other 18 Republican governors have not signed the endorsement letter. True enough, but that's not the whole story. At least five more Republican governors have already signaled that - notwithstanding the rekindled small-government principles trumpeted by their congressional counterparts - they would in fact be quite willing to take whatever federal money the Democratic-led recovery package might provide.
Utah Gov. John Huntsman has told the press, "This could be the type of stimulus that we could benefit from." Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons says the recovery measure "shows great promise for the partial or full reversal of many of the difficult but otherwise necessary spending reductions we are currently discussing." Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said that although he'd be voting No if he was still in Congress, he will take the money. Alabama Gov. Bob Riley says the money would ease his fiscal woes; in his words, "What everyone wants...is an expanding budget, not a contracting one." And Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty says, "States have to balance their budgets. So if we're going to go down this path, we are entitled to ask for our share of the money."
Based on the results of the last two congressional elections, when the GOP hemorrhaged House and Senate seats, it's clear that the voters don't consider Republicans to be good stewards of governance. The party's turnaround may hinge on the performance of its state executives, who by definition cannot succeed unless they eschew ideology and deal with reality. Unlike their counterparts in Washington.
A Republican consultant in Miami reportedly groused yesterday that "politically, Charlie Crist is putting the Florida Republican federal-elected representatives in a very tough spot." Well, that's the point, isn't it?
It's worth a brief return to Obama's first press conference, just to note an historic moment. Toward the end of the session, the president called on a reporter from the left-leaning Huffington Post website - thereby marking a first for the "new media."
Let me amend that: it was an historic validation for legitimate members of the new media.
Back in 2004, Bush press secretary Scott McClellan used to take a respite from tough questioning by calling on a gentleman named James Gannon. Gannon worked for something called Talon News. He always threw McClellan softballs, and McClellan at one point voiced his appreciation by saying, "I'm glad you brought that up, Jeff."
President Bush, at one of his press conferences, called on Gannon as well, and was naturally rewarded with his own softball. Gannon assailed the Democrats for painting a bleak picture of the economy, then posed his question: "Harry Reid was talking about soup lines...How are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?" (It turned out that Senate Minority Leader Reid had never invoked soup lines. Gannon had borrowed the reference from Rush Limbaugh, who had fabricated it.)
Anyway, it turned out that Jeff Gannon was a fake name used by the real James Guckert, who wrote for the fake Talon News service, which was, in reality, an offshoot of a conservative activist website called GOPUSA.
Contrast his lickspittle behavior with what happened on Monday night, when a reporter from a legitimate new-media liberal website confronted Barack Obama with one of the toughest questions of the press conference.
Sam Stein asked: "Today Senator Patrick Leahy announced that he wants to set up a truth and reconciliation committee to investigate the misdeeds of the Bush administration. He said that before you turn the page, you have to read the page first. Do you agree with such a proposal, and are you willing to rule out right here and now any prosecution of Bush administration officials?" And, in response, Obama bobbed and weaved.
Translation: As Stein so ably demonstrated, new-media journalists with political leanings are perfectly capable of fulfilling the old media's traditional adversarial role - even when these journalists share the president's political leanings. It's a lot more professional than being a pseudonymous shill.