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In coronavirus crisis, suddenly governors matter again

Governor Gavin Newsom.
Governor Gavin Newsom.Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

As the nation grapples with the best way to manage the novel coronavirus outbreak, governors are suddenly all over the national news once again. They are taking decisive action and driving the national conversation. They are the ones with actual power in this crisis, overriding big city mayors and filling a power vacuum created by a flat-footed White House.

Thursday night’s decision by California Governor Gavin Newsom to essentially lock down his state — where one out of eight Americans live — was the most decisive and far-reaching of any in the country so far. And his order basically rendered local orders moot, including one the Los Angeles mayor issued just a few hours earlier.

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Newsom’s decision came after actions other governors have taken. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine has been quick to take measures to stop the spread of the virus. He even found a way around a court order and canceled the state’s presidential primary at the last minute. On Tuesday, Kansas Governor Laura Kelly became the first governor to announce schools will be closed statewide for the rest of the academic year.

On Sunday, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she was considering limiting bars and restaurants to just 100 people. Before she could even act, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker did away with that idea — and a few hours later shut all of those establishments down.

In New England, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo was the first forced to address the issue when a teacher tested positive for the virus after an overseas trip. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu have held daily press conferences with updates, which are carried live on local news stations.

And then there is New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has not only overruled New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on whether to lock down the city, but has emerged as a national leader of the response to the crisis. Cuomo also led neighboring governors in Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania in not allowing anyone in a bar or restaurant. Cuomo was far from a popular governor before the crisis, but now even the snarky, millennial feminist website Jezebel had a post on Thursday titled: Help, I Think I’m In Love With Andrew Cuomo???

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President Trump’s Twitter feed might be the best example of how relevant governors are now: He is publicly praising or attacking governors from California to Washington state to Michigan instead of the people he usually focuses on – members of Congress.

That governors have re-emerged into the national conversation is one of the more interesting things to happen politically in this coronavirus moment.

Not that long ago, the nation’s governors were at the center of American political life. It was the spot that ambitious politicians sought out. Not only did being governor have power in its own right, but it also served as a launching pad for the White House.

Consider how the nation elected in succession, Jimmy Carter (a governor), Ronald Reagan (a governor), tried a vice president for four years, then Bill Clinton (a governor), followed by George W. Bush (a governor).

It’s possible that during the 2000s the grandeur of governors hit a peak. President George W. Bush reminded Americans that the state level was where real policy innovation took place in the country. They were the “laboratories of democracy” led by governors aiming to try new approaches to welfare reform (Wisconsin), to charter schools (Ohio), campaign finance reform (Maine and Arizona), and health care (Massachusetts). And when John Kerry emerged as the Democratic nominee to challenge Bush’s reelection, pundits were quick to point out that no one had gone from the Senate to the White House since 1960.

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In the past two decades, however, things have changed. The collapse of the local press has contributed to a nationalization of the political discussion, led by cable news. The emergence of small dollar contributions to finance elections means that people like Senator Elizabeth Warren are in a better position to run for president than current or former governors like Washington state’s Jay Inslee or Colorado’s John Hicklenlooper.

Two decades ago, Democrats would have swooned over Montana Governor Steve Bullock: A popular Democratic governor in a Republican state who can point to pragmatic, progressive reforms. But when he ran for president this time, he had no national name recognition and was a non-starter against competition who had built up national email lists because they were on MSNBC daily, and for years.

The same was true for Republicans in 2016, who pushed aside governors like Scott Walker and Jeb Bush, who actually did things in their states that conservatives could like, for a person who had never held elected office, Trump.

This coronavirus crisis may upend the way of life for many Americans. But in politics, the new normal might be a return to an old normal: the nation’s governors at the center of it all.

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James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.