Former President Clinton kicked off the centennial gathering of the National Governors Association on Saturday with a challenge to the states to reassert themselves to help the country combat what he called the profound challenges of globalization and interdependency.
Returning to an organization that helped launch him to the White House, Clinton urged states again to become incubators for experimentation and innovation to reduce income inequality, resolve growing tensions over immigration and confront the threat of global climate change.
“The Founders were right,” he said. “You have to be laboratories of democracy. The NGA gives the governors a forum to do that. We have to deal with inequality. We have to deal with identity. We have to deal with energy. If we do, we're about to go into the most exciting period in human history. If we don't, in the words of President (Theodore) Roosevelt, dark will be the future. I'm betting on light.”
Roosevelt convened the first gathering of the nation's governors in 1908, and this weekend's celebration brought together more than 50 current and former state executives for what turned into a lively and provocative debate on issues including education, health care and whether term limits have weakened state legislatures.
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Clinton, appearing in his capacity as head of his global foundation, made only passing references to the presidential campaign that occupied most of his time over the past year and never mentioned by name either of the presumptive nominees, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain.
Instead, he was the Clinton who rose through the gubernatorial ranks in the 1980s as an energetic policy activist prepared to talk about issues and solutions, no matter how large or small.
Clinton used the example of his foundation to urge governors to take small but concrete actions to deal with such problems as childhood obesity or the exorbitant fees lower-income people without bank accounts have to pay to cash paychecks.
But he also called on the governors to use their collective power, and their spirit of bipartisanship, to help Washington rewrite the No Child Left Behind Act, which he said has helped the lowest-performing schools, but at a cost of harming the performance of schools that traditionally have done a better job of educating their students.
The governors met, and the co-mingling of past and current officials produced a vigorous dialogue and substantial disagreement on how to improve education, whether health care can be reformed through the states and the balance between state and federal power.