CASPER — Former Wyoming Govs. Mike Sullivan and Jim Geringer said political candidates — in particular, presidential hopefuls — embrace reality-television-style messaging and explosive statements that result in lower-quality policy for the country.
At a time when Donald Trump, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, has come under fire for posting what many consider to be an anti-Semitic image, the former governors said instant communication is hurting the country. Geringer, a Republican, said the problem exists on the left, too.
“What we’re seeing … in politics generally is sort of bowing to the lowest denominator,” said Sullivan, a Democrat. “It seems the lowest common denominator has been set by reality TV and 24-hour news and sort of the instant communication that we have. I think it’s unfortunate and I hope we can avoid it in Wyoming, which we always have.”
“The standard seems to be the best way to get attention is to be outrageous,” Geringer added. “So whether it’s the genuine response that either of the two presumed presidential candidates are displaying or the urge to say ‘How am I going to get more than a quick sound bite on television? I have to say something that really smacks them upside the head.’ And that just degenerates the entire discourse.”
Sullivan and Geringer were at Casper College last week preparing for Aug. 2 debates for U.S. House candidates. The Star-Tribune, Wyoming PBS and the college are sponsoring the event.
The governors’ administrations were back-to-back: Sullivan led the state from 1987 to 1995. Geringer governed from 1995 to 2003.
Sullivan lives in Casper, recently retired from his law practice. Former President Bill Clinton named him ambassador to Ireland in 1998.
Geringer, who lives in Cheyenne, is a mechanical engineer and works for a technology company. He’s also worked as a farmer, an Air Force officer and in the space program.
There’s a chance some people will not vote because they’re unhappy with the options of Trump and Hillary Clinton, Geringer said. Another group will vote for third-party candidates.
“It means the people who voted in the election, the one who receives the most votes will probably not even get 50 percent,” he said.
“It’s very likely to be a low percentage. I don’t know how low, but 40 percent is not out of the question. It makes it very difficult for either candidate to govern according to a mandate.”
Both governors led the state during an oil downturn. At that time, coal and gas didn’t provide as high proportions of revenue to the state as they have more recently. Both men had to cut government. Gov. Matt Mead and the Legislature have reduced the state budget due to downturns in energy prices, too.
Neither former governor spoke in much detail about which cuts they support and which they oppose. They said the challenge facing Wyoming is that energy revenues continue to fall behind projections, which has been challenging for state agencies.
Sullivan said that both parties were more unified in the 1990s than they are today. The Republicans, in particular, are fractured between the tea party and more mainstream camps, he said.
“There are different bases within the parties, and legislatively and locally and nationally people are trying to establish their bases,” he said. “Therefore, policies become driven by a sort of different dynamic, which is bothersome.”
The factions are more pronounced during primary elections, Geringer said.
“(Candidates) play to the edge (more) than what would be the mainstream of either party,” he said.
Sullivan believes it is easier to be governor when the opposing party controls the Legislature. The tension between the two branches is obviously based on ideology. But with one party controlling most of government, “the tensions isn’t as constructive because it’s sort of internal fighting. And it’s more about power than anything else internally it seems to be.
“I think it’s an opinion that other governors who’ve had the same circumstance held: that you can have a better, more transparent discussion of the issues if you have more of a political balance,” he said.
By Laura Hancock
Casper Star Tribune