Republican governors: Some thoughts ahead

WILLIAMSBURG, VA. — WILLIAMSBURG, Va.--GOP National Chairman Haley Barbour, addressing the new class of 30 Republican governors at their annual conference just concluded here, called them "our best and brightest, the people who are proving that Republican ideas work." The net gain of 11 Republican governors on Nov. 8, he said, resulted "because you proposed and carried out policies and programs that are both good policy and good politics. ... You have practiced the politics of performance."

Barbour went on: "Governors govern, so you have been able to put the principles of smaller government into action and to demonstrate [that] policies based on our principles work. You cut taxes. You cut spending. You hold down regulations. You innovatively reform education and welfare. You emphasize criminal control as the answer to crime. ... Washington can benefit tremendously by learning from you."


The party chairman was saying only what governors of both parties have long believed: that they are on the real firing line of the nation's most pressing domestic problems, and they know best how to address them. And believing that, it can be expected that some of the veteran Republican governors are already thinking that rather than pass their know-how to Washington, why not go there and do it themselves -- as president in 1997?

Considering the beckoning opportunity for the GOP to recapture the White House in the wake of the devastating setback to the Democratic Party on Nov. 8, there was very little open talk about 1996 presidential prospects. The gathered Republicans were still basking in their success, and in their hopes for cooperation with the new GOP congressional leadership.


Only two likely presidential candidates visited the governors. and one of them, Senate Majority Leader-to-Be Bob Dole, was on the speaking program. His only references to 1996 were typical Dole wisecracks. Referring to House Speaker-to-Be Newt Gingrich, Dole remarked that "he's in line to be president. I don't know what I'm in line for." And referring to President Clinton in that colorful shirt in Jakarta, he said: "If you have to wear those kinds of shirts, I'm not sure I want to run."

The other 1996 prospect present, former Tennessee Gov. and Bush Education Secretary Lamar Alexander, quietly worked the corridors expressing, among other things, doubts that Dole or just-re-elected Gov. Pete Wilson of California would run. Wilson, he noted, has a Democratic lieutenant governor who would officially be acting governor whenever Wilson was out of the state on the presidential campaign trail.

But speculation is inevitable about the governors.

Wilson is foremost. Beyond representing the largest state, which would give him a huge delegate base for the nomination, Wilson has proved to be a most durable politician and somewhat of a hero, albeit a controversial one, among conservatives for his tough stand against continued state services to illegal immigrants and their families.

Others who are being mentioned as possibilities for the 1996 ticket are Govs. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, John Engler of Michigan, Bill Weld of Massachusetts and, as a vice presidential prospect, Christine Whitman of New Jersey. All have achieved tax and spending cuts that fit snugly into the national party model of responsive government as embraced by the voters two weeks ago.

When it was suggested to Engler that two of the last three governors elected to the presidency have been disappointments -- Jimmy Carter and Clinton -- Engler smiled and replied: "The one who was a success more than made up for the other two" -- Republican Ronald Reagan. Democrats may now have second thoughts about the wisdom of dipping into the gubernatorial pool, but Republicans don't.

Alexander argues that the Nov. 8 results indicate voters two years hence will want a candidate from outside Washington. His own early campaign has been sharply anti-Washington, with his catchy slogan, "Cut their pay and send them home."

If he's right about the appeal of an outsider, there will be no shortage of others who also fill the bill.