Not too long ago, the image of a Democratic governor was that of California’s Gray Davis, the listless, ideologically compromised bureaucrat who was so uninspiring that he couldn’t even maintain his grip on a very blue state. Then, two years ago, rabble-rousing rancher Brian Schweitzer snatched the top job in the formerly red state of Montana from the Republicans and quickly elbowed his way onto the national stage with so many ideas and so much energy that he was profiled on CBS’s 60 Minutes and then promoted for the presidency by a grassroots Internet campaign. This year Schweitzer will get company, perhaps a lot of it, as a team of smart, energetic progressives grab for governorships in what may well be the best year for Democrats in the states since 1990. The most prominent of their number, New York’s Eliot Spitzer, is already better known than several 2008 presidential contenders, thanks to his aggressive policing of Wall Street and his defense of the environment and consumers as the state’s crusading attorney general.
Running on the Democratic and Working Families Party ballot lines, Spitzer is so far ahead in the polls (72 to 21 in one recent survey) that there’s talk he could finish with a higher percentage of the vote than his ticket-mate, Senator Hillary Clinton, who is counting on a landslide to carry her into the presidential sweepstakes. Spitzer’s not going to try to take the 2008 nod from Clinton, but he’s got plans to hit the ground running so fast that the governorship of New York could by 2012 or 2016 again be what it was throughout much of the last century: the launching pad for national candidacies by the likes of Franklin Roosevelt, Tom Dewey and Nelson Rockefeller. With his “Day One: Everything Changes” campaign slogan, Spitzer says he’s out to prove that government can still work. “Day one is when we set out to make healthcare more affordable and cover every single child in the state of New York,” he pledged the night he won the Democratic nomination, “and it’s when we begin to fully fund education to insure that for every New Yorker, the path to opportunity and prosperity begins in our schools.”
One of the most exciting aspects of Spitzer’s campaign is that he has grounded his big ideas in a populist appeal that builds on the giant-killer reputation he achieved as an attorney general who attracted national attention when he took on the securities industry, but whose biggest accomplishments came in lower-profile but no less significant fights with polluters, insurance companies and corporations that sought to raid the pension funds of retired workers. “If one man can stand up to the powerful, so can you,” Spitzer’s television ads declare.
What’s even more exciting is that Spitzer is not the only Democratic gubernatorial candidate whose energy and style could shift both state policies and national debates. States remain, as Louis Brandeis said more than seventy years ago, “laboratories of democracy”–the places where new ideas are turned into smart policies and implemented. California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, like many Republican governors this year, sees that the best way to run for re-election is to run from President Bush. Schwarzenegger earned national headlines over the summer by signing legislation that aims to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to fight the climate changes the White House has yet to acknowledge. And he’s not the only state official who is pushing the policy envelope. Maine Governor John Baldacci, a Democrat, has been at the forefront of the fight to extend access to quality healthcare, implementing the innovative Dirigo Health Initiative.
Baldacci and several other governors have begun to wade into debates on trade policy, telling Congress that the Administration’s free-trade agenda isn’t working. And, as more and more responsibilities devolve to the states, there’s a growing sense that governors and legislators can and must begin to establish economic, healthcare and education policies that are dramatically distinct from–and dramatically more progressive than–those coming out of Washington. This model of “progressive federalism” is perhaps best illustrated by the decisions of twenty-three states to establish minimum-wage rates that are higher than the federal rate.