President Barack Obama and Democratic governors tore into Republicans on Friday as out of touch and insensitive to ordinary Americans, a partisan broadside to open the annual Washington gathering of the nation’s governors.
Obama set the political tone at a Thursday night dinner for the Democrats, conceding that too often during midterm elections “we end up getting ourselves into trouble, because I guess we don’t think it’s sexy enough.” Obama then explained that in fact, midterm elections are “where much of the action is.”
Friday, the president met at the White House for about an hour with 14 Democratic governors and brought up New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Until recently, Christie was widely viewed as the Republicans’ strongest 2016 presidential candidate.
Obama was promoting his own plan to increase the minimum wage from the current $7.25 to $10.10 an hour. He told the governors a higher wage is “not just good policy, it also happens to be good politics.”
As an example, he said, “In New Jersey, even though the Republican governor opposed it, it passed by 60 percent.”
New Jersey voters last year approved raising the minimum wage by $1, to $8.25, and allowing automatic cost-of-living increases annually. Christie had vetoed legislation that would have permitted an $8.50 wage and permitted increases for inflation. He instead offered to back a $1 increase over three years.
Christie is chairman of the Republican Governors Association. His popularity has plunged since disclosures of his aides’ involvement in closing lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge to punish a local Democratic mayor.
While the four-day governors meeting that began Friday was once seen as a way for Christie to show gravitas and political skill to a national audience, he is now expected to be less visible. He reportedly will skip the traditional Sunday night governors’ dinner with Obama at the White House so he can be home for his daughter’s 18th birthday.
Christie and his organization plan to use the weekend gathering to tout their economic success by keeping taxes at reasonable levels and providing incentives for business to grow.
After their meeting with Obama Friday, the Democratic governors were aggressively challenging those claims.
“Our Republican governors have been distracted by a more radical social agenda that gives tax cuts to the wealthy (and) asks the middle class to pay for them while they cut education and the opportunities that allow us to grow jobs,” said Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, the Democratic Governors Association chairman.
“While they do that, they seem more focused on passing policies that . . . alienate women, minorities, immigrants, gays and other Americans.”
Jon Thompson, spokesman for the Republican Governors Association, rejected the Democrats’ characterization of the GOP governors.
“Through tax relief, budget surpluses and making jobs priority number one, Republican governors are making their states a better place to live, work, raise a family and start a business,” he said. “Republican governors have a clear record that Democrat governors can’t match.”
One of the top issues raised by the Democrats will be the minimum wage.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee noted that some people work a full week and still need government assistance. “When people can’t eat, they’re not good consumers,” he said.
Inslee, a former congressman, challenged this week’s report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office suggesting that while the increase could take 900,000 people out of poverty, it could also mean a loss of half a million jobs.
“With all due respect, they are not the experts on this issue,” Inslee said.
The fighting words reflect a view that Democrats were caught off guard in 2010, when the rise of the tea party and its grassroots conservative base not only gave Republicans control of the House of Representatives, but helped elect Republican governors in states with strong Democratic bases.
White House officials would later lament that losing key governorships made it harder to control congressional redistricting. Lines were drawn that have given Republicans a decided advantage in House races.
Democrats this year have high hopes to win the statehouses in several of the states the party lost four years ago, notably Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Maine.
Obama and the Democratic governors were very much on the same page Thursday night and Friday.
“State by state, Republican governors are implementing a different agenda,” Obama said. “They’re pursuing the same top-down, failed economic policies that don’t help Americans get ahead.”
By David Lightman
McClatchy Washington Bureau