Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts

Why Governors Are Different

Governors are different from members of Congress.

As he started a second term as Tennessee's chief executive, Republican Bill Haslam told the New York Times: "One of the things about being governor is when you're forced to actually balance your budget, it makes people become much more pragmatic very quickly."

Legislators make speeches; governors make decisions. And then take responsibility for how those decisions impact the real people who live and vote in their states.

Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada defied tea party activists -- and their obsessive hatred of Obamacare -- and expanded Medicaid eligibility for his constituents.

"I'm the one who has to go out in a community, go to a school, a town hall, what have you, and be able to look people in the eye and be able to explain why I made a decision one way or the other," he said in the Los Angeles Times. "And my conscience is clear when it comes to that decision, that it was the right thing for the people of Nevada."

On the federal level, hard-right conservatives scream for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution as a way of curbing excessive liberal spending. But in the states, which are required by law to balance their budgets, these strictures are often having the opposite effect. They are forcing governors to oppose expensive tax cuts that would throw their balance sheets out of whack.

"It's easy to say 'I'd like to cut taxes.' I would, too," Haslam said recently. "It's easy to say 'I'd like to spend more.' I would, too. (But) we haven't suspended any law of economics here."

One governor who tried to suspend those laws is Sam Brownback of Kansas, a former congressman and senator who decided to run the state on the ideological precepts he absorbed on Capitol Hill. Trust me, he said, if we slash taxes, we'll increase revenue. The cuts will pay for themselves.

It was a fantasy, of course. He couldn't change economic reality. Now Kansas faces a budget shortfall of $710 million over the next two fiscal years, and Brownback has tried to plug the gap with gimmicks: diverting millions of dollars from highway funds and the state retirement system.

Bond rating agencies are unimpressed. They've already downgraded the state's credit score and are threatening to do it again. Finally, the governor's spokesman hinted recently that he would accept new revenue measures -- a spasm of pragmatism dictated by reality.

As a senator, Brownback never faced those pressures. As a governor, he cannot escape them. Nor can his fellow Republicans in statehouses across the country.

In Michigan, for example, Gov. Rick Snyder and legislators have agreed on a 1-point increase in the state's sales tax that will require voter approval this spring. The proceeds would go toward improving schools and repairing infrastructure, and the governor confronted his critics by voicing what could be called The Governors' Creed: "This is about solving a problem."

Wyoming, Utah and Tennessee have now joined nine other states with Republican governors in agreeing to expand Medicaid coverage for low-income residents. One of those executives, John Kasich of Ohio, has denounced his conservative foes by insisting that their opposition to Medicaid expansion "was really either political or ideological" and not based on fact.

It wasn't based on morality, either, said Kasich: "Now when you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he's probably not gonna ask you much about what you did about keeping government small, but he's going to ask you what you did for the poor."

The GOP has a strong bench, with governors like Kasich, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Chris Christie of New Jersey and Mike Pence of Indiana all considering presidential bids. Four former governors -- Jeb Bush of Florida, Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Rick Perry of Texas -- are itching to run as well.

As a country, we like electing governors because of their executive experience and their roots outside Washington. Before Barack Obama defeated a fellow senator, John McCain, only two sitting lawmakers had ever won the White House.

But statehouse service is no guarantee of success in a presidential campaign. Romney governed as a pragmatist on issues like health care, but was then pulled to the extreme right in the GOP primaries and lost his moorings.

It's a good lesson. Those governors will be far more effective candidates if they embrace the creed of their breed and campaign on their strength -- as pragmatists, not purists.

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