Governors don't share president's priorities

March 02, 2005|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - When the state governors meet here each winter, the president wines and dines them at the White House. He gives them his boilerplate spiel on how he wants to work with them, and then they head home, usually without much to show for it.

The governors' latest visit was basically the same. The morning after their sumptuous White House dinner, they called on President Bush again and were treated to the same optimistic outlook he has been spreading in "town meetings" around the country, throwing in an appeal for their cooperation on his agenda.

This group of governors, both Republican and Democratic, had particular cause for concern about that agenda. It targets deep cuts in such programs as Medicaid, education and environmental protection in which the states are expected to take up the slack.

Old gubernatorial hands from both parties are familiar with this annual waltz and take it in stride. So it was interesting to hear how a freshman running his state for only a few weeks reacted to the presidential message - and massage - especially about Mr. Bush's Medicaid cuts and his idea to let younger taxpayers invest a portion of their Social Security payroll tax in the stock market.

Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer of Montana, a 49-year-old rancher, acknowledged he was new to Washington but thinks he's "figured it out. Ever been to a magic show? The magician holds out his right hand. ... He's moving it around in wide gestures and he's got you watching that hand, looking at it and making sure you're watching that right hand and talking about what's happening in the right hand. But everything's happening in the left hand. The trick is the left hand.

"Today we're talking about Social Security [insolvency], something that might happen 20, 30, 40 years from now. Big deal." That, he said, "is the right hand. Over here, with the left hand, we're cutting Medicaid, we're cutting programs that affect the heartland."

The Montana freshman clearly wasn't buying. As a Democrat, that was hardly surprising, but when asked whether any Republican governors had stood up to the president on the Medicaid cuts, Mr. Schweitzer had another homey anecdote.

"You ever been to a bull sale?" he asked. "At a bull sale, you bring the cattle out, and you have all the buyers that are coming there, and you describe all the wonderful attributes about the bulls. ... The object of this is to get people to nod their heads. Once they get to nod their heads, they're going to bid on that bull when it comes in the auction.

"I was watching the governors around the room, and I was seeing more of this" - his head shaking side to side - "than I was seeing of this" - nodding up and down. "I didn't think there were any buyers in the room. There might have been."

The president, in speaking with the governors that morning, said, "We look forward to working with you and Congress on Medicare reform after we solve the Social Security problem."

But the chairman of the Democratic Governors' Association, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, echoed the view of many colleagues of both parties that addressing Medicare reform and Medicaid cuts was the real crisis for them and their constituents, not Social Security reform.

"Washington," he said, clearly meaning President Bush, "needs to stop creating one crisis after another and deal directly with the immediate needs of the American people - health care, education, cops on the street, homeland security. There's an obsession here in Washington with Social Security."

Mr. Richardson noted that the president said he was willing to negotiate on his Medicaid cuts - $60 billion over 10 years - but as far as the governors were concerned, he said, any agreement was far off.

In any event, the reality is that presidents, not governors, set the national agenda. And Mr. Bush seems determined to focus first on what he calls the "crisis" in Social Security, whether they like it or not.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.

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