President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union was a needlessly partisan speech aimed more at setting the table for the 2016 presidential elections than charting a governing agenda for 2014. As National Journal’s Ron Fournier wrote:
“President Obama ended his State of the Union address where he started his political ascent—offering to be a leader who produces can-do bipartisanship in a divided, dysfunctional capital.
“Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns,” he told a joint session of Congress on Tuesday. “Imagine if we did something different.”
Yes, imagine if rather than empty promises, the president could report two-party progress on big issues like immigration, climate change, social mobility, and the debt and deficit.
Actually, you don’t need to imagine. Such leadership exists in this country—just not in Washington.
Sadly, much too much energy and attention is directed at Washington, a place where drama and divisiveness dominate, and very little is devoted to state governments, where compromise and comity thrive.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously labeled the states “laboratories of democracy,” highlighting their ability to “try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” Brandeis was speaking specifically about laws and policies, but now they are acting as proving grounds for a much more basic thesis: That members of two political parties can come together to get things done.
Yes, it actually happens.
Take these lines from Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s State of the State address: “[T]he last four years were a special honor to be your governor. The teamwork that we showed, and the bipartisanship on tackling tough problems, and [the way we] solved them together. . . we should be proud of that.”
Gov. Snyder went on to give specific thanks to a number of individual Democrats, citing the bipartisan projects that could not have been done but for their leadership. Things like the Grand Bargain, Healthy Michigan, and improving transportation.
Snyder wasn’t alone in his praise of working across the aisle.
There was Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, who, in a speech entitled “Together We Can,” highlighted the importance of working together to “create more jobs, live better lives and grow prosperity throughout the state.”
There was New Jersey Governor Chris Christie—a man not exactly known for being warm and cuddly—touting the fact that “a Republican governor and a Democratic legislature came together…[and] defied the conventional wisdom and enacted historic reforms. . .” Christie went on to admit that “[w]e may argue from time to time over the best means to get things done,” but shrugged it off as “the nature of public debate” while promising to “always be willing to engage in it.” Results, he said, can only be achieved “if we put aside party and pettiness.”
And New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, who framed her entire speech with the idea that “voters didn’t choose one party over another in November.”
“I firmly believe they chose progress over politics,” Martinez said. “They chose to move forward, to keep reforming, and that’s my commitment – to work together with Republicans and Democrats to make New Mexico an even better place to live – for them, and their children and grandchildren.”
And South Carolina Governor Nicki Haley who touted the fact that the state is now “getting notice for our triumphs, not our controversies.” She even elicited shock in political circles for inviting Charleston’s Democrat Mayor Joe Riley, calling him one of the state’s “great gentlemen and devoted public servants.”
This is just a taste of how Republican governors across the nation are working alongside their Democratic counterparts to tackle tough issues, get things done, and share the credit for their accomplishments. Compare that to President Obama’s State of the Union, which used words like “fighting,” “vicious,” “fearful,” “threats,” “crush” and “explode,” which sound more like a description of a battlefield than an inspiring presentation of ideas. Sadly, policy disagreements in Washington are often treated like battles, fortunately then the war of ideas is being won in the states.