When you talk about the Big 3 Democrats in American politics, the focus shouldn’t be on President Barack Obama, Senate president Harry Reid and minority leader Nancy Pelosi.
Obama deserves his place on the list, to be sure.
But his wing-men at the top of the heap are New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and California Governor Jerry Brown.
Between them, Gov. Cuomo and Gov. Brown represent 56 million Americans — nearly one out of every five citizens — and their states dominate the nation’s economy and cultural life.
As “big state” governors, they’re talking much the same problems that Mr. Obama confronts: breathtaking budget deficits, ferocious partisanship and gridlock.
The interesting thing is that all three are moving politically in the same direction, tacking toward the center at a time when many in the Democratic Party’s liberal wing want a confrontation with conservatives.
Mr. Obama’s economic policies have more or less exactly mirrored those of President George Bush, who launched the program of bailouts and stimulus that have continued over the last three years.
He’s been hawkish on the war in Afghanistan. And he’s shown no great eagerness to partner with environmentalists on major battles such as climate change.
Wall Street bankers have actually fared better under Mr. Obama’s policies than they did under Mr. Bush.
Meanwhile, in New York Gov. Cuomo has battled public employee unions into submission, laid off thousands of government workers, slashed social program spending, and refused to raise taxes on millionaires.
He also appears amenable to a new hydro-fracking energy industry in New York state, a vision that many green groups are fighting tooth and nail.
In California, facing his own budget crisis, Gov. Brown has launched a full-throated assault on public employee pensions, fighting to raise the retirement age and downscale benefits.
The Wall Street Journal responded to the trend this way;
We are witnessing a ‘Nixon to China’ moment as Democratic governors embrace the need to amend and reduce health and retirement benefits of public employees (see New York).
It remains to be seen whether these Democratic governors have more sway than their more conservative Republican counterparts when it comes to taking away benefits from public sector union members.
Gov. Cuomo, at least, is indeed showing some real success in balancing New York’s books while maintaining core government services.
And most independent economists think Mr. Obama’s leadership during the financial crisis spared the U.S. a far deeper recession, preventing the implosion of Detroit’s auto industry and staving off a collapse of the nation’s big banks.
Still, it’s unclear whether this kind of centrism is palatable, at a time when tea party groups occupy the high ground on one end of the political spectrum and the Occupy Wall Streeters are pitching their tents at the other end of the spectrum.
The polls are mixed at this point. 79% of the people who voted for Mr. Obama still say he’s doing a good job. But his favorability rating among self-described liberals has dropped to just 69%.
When a third of your core supporters aren’t thrilled about giving you a second term, that’s trouble.
Gov. Cuomo is doing better, with 65% of all voters — not just Democrats — approving of his work so far. (I couldn’t find fresh numbers for Gov. Brown.)
In the end, it appears that all three of these Democrats are staking their political fortunes on the idea that competence and compromise should trump ideology.
For that to work politically, you have to produce tangible results. That means lower unemployment and a sense that the long economic crisis — at the Federal and the state levels — is finally passing.
We’ll find out next year whether voters think Mr. Obama passed that test.