WASHINGTON -- For as long as there have been national governors' conferences, the chief topic of corridor conversation usually has been presidential politics. Those who weren't themselves running were always willing and eager to talk about those who were, or should have been.
That, however, was before the United States went to war in the Persian Gulf and the governors, like Congress and the American people generally, fell in line behind the American troops in the field, if not always behind President Bush's policy of impatience with economic sanctions that put them there.
Among the Democratic governors on all speculative lists of presidential candidates for 1992 is 44-year-old Bill Clinton of Arkansas, after 10 years in office widely regarded as one of his party's brightest young stars -- with national ambition to match. Asked at the governors' conference just ended here what his current thinking was about running for national office, Clinton replied: "It's inappropriate for me to say. It's not inappropriate for you to ask, but it's inappropriate for me to say."
The reason, obviously, is the war, which has obliged all Democratic politicians with a White House gleam in their eyes to cast it out as unseemly at a time of non-partisan support for the U.S. cause. And not just potential candidates are inhibited from discussing presidential politics now; any talk about taking on Bush, basking in the surge of patriotism that his war has generated, would be political poison for the speaker.
There were other reasons, however, for the lack of presidential politicking at the governors' winter meeting. One is the absence of Democratic candidates, who are keeping their heads down not only because of the war but also because they don't see the prospect of running against Bush as overly attractive anyway.
But, beyond that, there is another circumstance that has cooled the traditional focus on presidential politics at the governors' conferences. The governors, says Clinton, "have become less interested in presidential politics as they become more and more convinced that they aren't going to get much from the federal government anyway."
They know that increasingly the buck stops at their desks, and not the president's, on a wide range of domestic programs. And, although they all say they welcome Bush's latest proposal to turn $15 billion in heretofore federal programs over to the governors with the promise to provide the money to pay for them, many -- particularly the Democrats -- are skeptical.
The governors have little time for presidential politics these days, says Democrat Cecil Andrus of Idaho, because "we have social issues that dominate every waking hour of our day. Presidents of the United States run on domestic issues, but the moment they're elected they become totally enamored and consumed with foreign affairs. I've been around long enough [10 years as governor and four years as secretary of interior] to see that happen too many times," he says. "The governors are where the rubber meets the road. That's where the social issues are, at the state level -- health care, education, jobs, the economy."
Democratic Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, the chairman of the National Governors' Association, also attributes the lack of 1992 presidential speculation here to preoccupation with problems at the state level. "I think the only kind of presidential politics that would be welcome at a meeting like this is if somebody comes in and says, 'Here's a solution and it's going to work,' and you look at it and say, 'Yeah, we agree.' "
One possible Democratic presidential candidate, House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, did exactly that with a plan of "rewards for results" in education, a scheme whereby the federal government would pay states a bonus for each child who came to school age with stipulated preschool preparation, including proper health care. "I take it not as presidential politics," Romer says, "I take it as somebody saying, 'Hey, I've been worried about a problem, let me give you my suggestion.' "
In earlier years, such a proposal would certainly have caused Gephardt's listeners to say, "He's running." But today's governors seem more interested in their own problem-solving than in gossiping about prospective federal problem-solvers.
Political columnists Germond and Witcover of The Evening Sun's staff appear Monday through Friday. Beginning next Monday, their column will appear on the editorial page.