When Barack Obama was elected President in 2008, it was the first time a sitting Senator had ascended to the White House since JFK in 1960. Some Senators have won their party’s nomination since then, most recently Bob Dole, John Kerry and John McCain. But every successful candidate in that 48-year span has come either from the executive branch (LBJ, Nixon, the elder Bush) or, much more likely, from a state governor’s office.
Is it easier to run for President as a governor or ex-governor? Damn right it is. Look at the Republican field. As of today, July 21, as Gov. John Kasich throws his hat into the ring, governors or former governors represent fully half the sixteen announced candidates: Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee, George Pataki, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, and Kasich. There are five current or former Senators running (Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, Rand Paul, and Rick Santorum), and three “other”: Carly Florina, Ben Carson, and Donald Trump. Both mathematically and politically, the odds are one of those governors will be the Pubs’ nominee.
Why would that be? Why would a “stranger” to Washington have a better shot than somebody who works there and has also won statewide elections, again and again? It is said that there are one hundred people in the United States Senate who look in the mirror each morning and behold a potential President. But for the past fifty years, they’ve had the devil of a time making the move. How come? After all, it’s much easier for a Senator to get national attention, even when shrieking into a camera like Cruz or Graham, and most of what a governor does is only a state and local matter unless the National Guard or FEMA are somehow involved. But that natural advantage comes burdened with its own Achilles heel: Senators have to express an official judgment in public by voting, up or down, on divisive national issues. They leave a track record.
In contrast, a governor can say, “The President’s an executive, not a lawmaker, and I have experience in by-god governing. Plus, I performed economic wizardry in my state against all odds, blah blah.” And it will take deep digging at the local level to judge the actual effect of gubernatorial policies. With newsrooms emptying across the country, that’s less likely to happen. For example, it’s true that Rick Perry managed to poach an astounding number of jobs from other states when he was Texas’s chief executive. But what do those jobs pay, and what did Texas have to promise in tax abatements to get them? What has been the net effect of the “Texas miracle”? That’s very hard to answer precisely, and Texas is the second largest state in the country. Imagine having to put together an investigative reporting team in, say, Idaho.
The governors can spout any stray stat they want, and nobody’s the wiser. Nor have they ever been forced to go on the record about Iran or Putin, or any other issue outside their state borders. They have “experience” without the baggage, and unless their personalities are oversized or freakish, they’re relatively anonymous. Bet you couldn’t pick John Kasich out of a lineup, even though he’s a nine-term Congressman and the sitting governor of Ohio. (They say he gets mad easily. We’ll find out.)
That relative anonymity is a boon today, because in the last twenty years Americans have lost a great deal of respect for Congress, particularly the Senate, which was once the world’s greatest deliberative body but is now the place where good bills go to die. We’ve had similar hyperpartisan periods in the Senate before (see Robert Caro’s third LBJ book, MASTER OF THE SENATE, for a definitive history in less than 100 pages), and we’re in the middle of another plodding, depressing age now. It is not as salutary to be a Senator today as it was earlier in my lifetime. The disgust with “Washington” is so pervasive that the age-old “I’m not tied up with those bums” campaign boast really means something. Jimmy Carter was scorned and vilified by the Washington establishment the moment he arrived because he was a rube from out of town (later, Nancy Reagan’s glamour was to the chattering class a breath of fresh air). Nowadays voters are begging for a rube to come and shake things up. Advantage: governors. (And real rubes whose authority derives from sainted Bidness, like Carly, Ben, and Trump.)
One reason there are so many governors in the Pub field is that there are so many Pub governors. They represent 31 of the fifty states, and many have majorities or supermajorities (meaning they can do whatever they want) in their state legislatures. Pubs have been creaming Democrats at the state and local level for twenty years. They’re better organized and more attuned to “cash-register” issues that resonate at home, where nobody cares whether Greece exits the euro. Just fix the potholes and let me gate my community. Despite the clownish outliers (you have to act a little nuts to win a Pub primary because only the zealots are voting, and sometimes a tinfoil hat or two can sneak through), their “bench” is far deeper. Pubs have paid better attention to Tip O’Neill’s famous dictum, “All politics is local.” And they have masterfully marshaled innate populist hatred for the President into huge midterm victories that further improve their edge.
What they can’t seem to do is snatch the big one. In the last six Presidential elections, spanning 24 years, the Pub candidate has won the popular vote exactly once: George W. Bush’s second term, when the country was still traumatized over 9/11 and his running mate was basically saying, elect the other guy and we’re gonna get hit hard. In other words, vote for me or die. Demographers tell us that inevitable trends will favor Democrats in forthcoming national elections as old white men — the “pale, male and stale” — gradually surrender their hegemony against their will, thus the frenzied Pub effort to suppress voting all over the country. But if Democrats are counting on grass-roots support for their future, they’re going to have to make a grass-roots effort to earn it. Howard Dean’s “50-state strategy” should be a permanent fixture of their party. Because it sure is on the other side.