WASHINGTON -- The biggest irritant for the Obama administration so far this calendar year has not come from Senate Republicans eager to filibuster, nor from recalcitrant House Republican leaders threatening a government shutdown.
Rather, the most effective stymieing of the White House has come from a relatively new batch of governors buoyed by the national political climate and eager to showcase their conservative bona fides in opposition to the administration.
On Wednesday alone, the GOP gubernatorial insurgence was impossible to ignore. At a Washington think tank, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie belittled Obama's big policy ideas as political "candy." In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott announced that he would reject federal funding for a national high-speed rail system, the crown jewel of the president's infrastructure agenda. In Arizona, Gov. Jan Brewer took formal steps to cut an estimated 250,000 adults, many of them poor or impoverished, from her state's Medicaid rolls in defiance of Obama's health care law. And in Wisconsin, the president was drawn into an ongoing debate over an attempt by Gov. Scott Walker to strip the collective-bargaining capacity of the state's unions.
Earlier in the week, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley announced that she would like to see her state opt out of the president's health care law. That came on the heels of Govs. Nathan Deal of Georgia and Butch Otter of Idaho expressing much the same sentiment. Texas Governor Rick Perry has announced that his state would not participate in the high-risk insurance pools that the law mandates. Ohio Gov. John Kasich preceded Scott in refusing funds for high-speed rail, echoing Christie's earlier refusal to pay for rail line construction between New York and New Jersey.
That governors, not Congress, have proven to be the chief thorn in the administration's side is a logical byproduct of the framework of government. House Republicans can pass a law repealing the president's health care act, for instance, but there is no way to circumvent a Democratic-controlled Senate or a presidential veto. Governors don't suffer from those parliamentary constraints.
"In Congress, the president proposes and we will oppose," said Nick Ayers, a top GOP official and formerly the executive director of the Republican Governors Association. "That's an important function. We need that. But in the states it works like this -- we have a contrast. This is the way the Democratic leadership handles budgets and the economy. This is the way we handle them."
There's a broader political strategy at work, too. During last year's midterm campaign, Ayers pitched Republican donors with the argument that the party's resurrection and Obama's stall would occur in the states, not the Capitol. "People bought into that argument," Ayers said. The RGA raised copious amounts of money and achieved a fairly dramatic shift in state-level political power.
There are, of course, other contributing factors. Democrats complain that the media is complicit in rewarding governors who appear willing to propose steep cuts in spending, with too little attention paid to policy outcomes. "On the number one issue facing the nation, jobs," said Lis Smith, the communications director for the Democratic Governors Association. "Republican governors are all too willing to throw their states under the bus for good headlines."
Ask other political observers, and the explanation is not that governors are grand but that congressional Republicans simply lack the gravitas.
"Washington is a tricky place," Craig Shirley, a Reagan biographer and adviser to conservative groups, said in an email. "There is less willingness here to throw the virgin into the volcano. There is more motivation and courage to make sacrifices in the states (mostly) than there is in Washington."
Not helping matters is the political histories of those Republican governors -- namely, former Florida Governor Charlie Crist -- who embraced Obama, either physically or legislatively. And Obama misses out on a certain amount of gubernatorial comity because he comes from the legislature, not a governor's mansion like other presidents before him.
"With Clinton, it was his favorite night of the year when governors would come to dinner," said Paul Begala, a longtime Democratic operative and Clinton White House hand. "He loved his fellow governors, he knew all of them, felt he understood them."
Regardless of what's compelled Republican governors to rebel, the political ramifications remain both unknown and potentially drastic. High-speed rail, for instance, could be a budget burden on individual states -- though the federal government is footing most of the bill -- but it would also bring an estimated 48,000 jobs to Florida, 16,000 to Ohio and 13,000 to Wisconsin. Should governors decline to set up health insurance exchanges, meanwhile, it would be a defiant protest against Obama's signature Affordable Care Act. It would also require the federal government to set up the exchanges in those states for those governors.
"In modern history our governors have been, of necessity, both pragmatic and moderate. Today, there are a few of these Republicans, like in Florida and Wisconsin, who just seem to be so ideological. It is a totally new model," Begala said. "What sensible governor in a state like Florida would turn down billions of dollars for high-speed rail?"
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