If conventional wisdom held, politicians who played best to their base would be the most popular. Public opinion polls would favor conservatives in deeply red states and progressives from places that skew hard to the left. In other words, you'd expect Democratic governors presiding over Hillary Clinton states and Republicans elected in states that voted for President Donald Trump to top public opinion surveys. But you might just be wrong.
Pull out the latest polling figures and contrast the rankings of the nation's governors. You'll find Maryland's Larry Hogan near or at the top of nearly every list. Last year a poll conducted by Annapolis-based OpinionWorks LLC determined that 71 percent of Marylanders approved of his performance, making him the most popular Maryland governor in decades. But Gov. Hogan doesn't fit the conventional profile at all: He's a Republican sitting atop a state that voted 60 percent (to 34 percent) for Secretary Clinton. The Old Line State hasn't cast the state's electoral votes for a Republican nominee since 1988.
Governor Hogan seems to be flouting the laws of conventional wisdom. As it happens, however, he is actually one in a long tradition of governors elected against the grain of their state's presidential voting record. Governors Brian Sandoval (a Nevada Republican), Steve Bullock (a Montana Democrat), Charlie Baker (a Massachusetts Republican) and Phil Scott (a Vermont Republican) all affiliate with the party whose nominee lost their state in the 2016 presidential election — yet they're all popular with their own constituents. The secret of each governor's success isn't that he plays to his party's base. It's that each works hard to weigh the priorities on both sides of the aisle and do the right thing.
Contrast that with what's happened at the federal level. Washington is currently hamstrung by a cohort of politicians who have been driven to the ideological extremes. Many members of the House of Representatives are less worried about being re-elected in the next general election than they are of being "primaried" by more vitriolic members of their own party. In districts that are overwhelmingly red or overwhelmingly blue, reaching across the aisle makes you a political target.
Governor Hogan's success illustrates an important insight: More than anything else, most Americans want their government to be competent. They're more interested in seeing their elected officials fix problems than fight ideological battles. Moreover, most voters are savvy enough to realize that neither party has exclusive purchase on smart policy. Some good ideas come from the left and others from the right. The secret is in balancing the two.
Imagine today if the same wisdom were applied in Washington. What if, rather than catering to their party's ideological extremes, members of Congress tried to do what was right for the country? What if members reached out across the aisle — even if it meant they were putting themselves at risk of facing a primary opponent? What if they voted their conscience rather than their party?
A recent Harvard/Harris poll found that 89 percent of voters "want both parties to work together to reach compromise." What if Washington began crafting legislation in a bipartisan way, cognizant of the fact that both parties have wisdom to contribute to solving the enormous challenges our nation faces on both the domestic and international fronts?
Fortunately, a group of courageous members of Congress from both parties have begun to take that very approach. The Problem Solvers Caucus — a bipartisan group currently composed of 22 Democrats and 22 Republicans — has emerged as a bloc willing to support or oppose legislation entirely on the merits. They will not be beholden to the demands of ideologues or obstructionists on either end of the political spectrum. And while they may be targeted by obstructionists for their efforts to reach across the aisle, they won't be intimidated.
To date, no member of the Maryland delegation to Congress has joined the Problem Solvers, and that's a shame. Governor Hogan's success has been born of the very same approach this new congressional bloc intends to take. If good policy really is good politics, Maryland's representatives in Washington would do well to follow the governor's lead. That may conflict with the prevailing political wisdom. But it's time for us to consider if that very wisdom is to blame for the mess we endure out of Washington day after day.
Bill Brock (Twitter: @bbrock67) served as a U.S. senator from Tennessee from 1971 to 1977 and as U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1985 to 1987. He was chair of the Republican National Committee from 1977-1981.