ORLANDO — You've heard the laments about gridlocked, dysfunctional government with leaders unable to make hard decisions needed to get America back on track.
But turn your attention away from Washington and you'll see plenty of bold leadership in America's state capitals: drastic spending cuts leading to balanced budgets, slashed public employee pensions and education reform measures bucking powerful teacher unions.
"Whether it's Rick Scott in Florida, Rick Snyder in Michigan, John Kasich in Ohio … there's just a ton of bold, courageous new governors who've come in, and we're ready to transform America," Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker told a Republican Governors Association gathering in Orlando this week.
Agree or disagree with them, these conservative governors are making sweeping structural changes and proving that at least outside of Washington, big policy initiatives are still possible.
"When Washington is in chaos you've watched a full class of governors step up and say, 'We're not waiting on D.C., we're going to fix our states now,' '' said South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. "They did it by making true reforms that sometimes their states didn't understand but proved to really show results."
State governments have long been the main laboratories for government reform, which is partly why governors tend to be much more appealing presidential candidates than members of Congress. Amid the throngs of lobbyists and party activists gathered for the RGA conference at the Waldorf Astoria in Orlando on Wednesday and Thursday, were several GOP stars who rejected heavy recruiting to run for president: Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
"You can agree or disagree with some of the stuff we've done in our states, but we've done it," said Christie, contrasting the record of the nation's 29 GOP governors to President Barack Obama, who Christie said has been on the sidelines of major budget debates. "Real leadership is not what you see in the White House right now. As I've said before, I think it's a sad day in our country's history to see a bystander in the Oval Office, and that's what we have."
Brutal budget years have given governors leeway to make some spending policy decisions that would have been almost unheard of during flush times: Scott was one of several governors to start requiring public employees to contribute to their state pensions; In Wisconsin, Walker sought to eliminate most collective bargaining rights for state workers; and South Carolina Gov. Haley vetoed $213 million in spending proposals and helped enact restrictions on civil lawsuits.
Christie is blessed with approval ratings approaching 60 percent in New Jersey, and suggested the recent record of GOP governors could serve as examples of leadership and help Republicans win back the White House. In several crucial swing states, however, these can-do conservative governors look more like political liabilities than assets for the GOP heading into 2012.
Only one in three Florida voters approves of Scott's performance, for instance. Ohio's Kasich, Wisconsin's Walker and Michigan's Snyder have seen similarly grim poll numbers and even recall campaigns.
"Voters in states likes Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida thought they were voting for jobs in 2010, but instead got massive partisan overreach from their governors," said Lis Smith, spokeswoman for the Democratic Governors Association. "Busting unions, slashing funding for education, and suppressing the right to vote might go over well with the tea party crowd, but it won't create a single job."
Scott appeared on a panel Thursday along with Kasich, Walker, Daniels and Gov. Bill Haslam of Tennessee.
"I apologize to anybody who came to this city to ride the high-speed rail project. I killed that,'' Scott quipped.
Scott touted his successes in balancing the budget while cutting taxes, overhauling growth management laws, and drug screening for welfare recipients, which has been stymied by a legal challenge. The former hospital executive also acknowledged the learning curve he faced after taking office.
Asked by Daniels to name one of the main things he learned about government, Scott mentioned the dynamics of the Republican-controlled Legislature.
He said he had to learn about "all the committees and all that" and how and why assorted Republican House and Senate members "disliked one another and why."
A continuing theme for the governors in Orlando is that Washington — and especially the Obama administration — needs to follow the example of state leaders and make some tough decisions.
Daniels, pushed to run for president and so far neutral in the GOP primary, said he worries a little that the Republican nominee could shy away from campaigning on a bold and clear platform. The president appears so vulnerable, Daniels said, the Republican nominee could be tempted to play it safe rather than risk telling the American people the dramatic steps needed to turn the country around.
"We've got to campaign to govern and not simply to win and try to get the authorization of the American public to try to make the big changes we need while there's still time," Daniels said. "If we fail to do that we might eke out the election, but then what?"
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.