Commentary Magazine


Topic: the presidency

Must Republicans Nominate a Governor?

Flush off his third election victory in four years, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker wasn’t shy about telling Chuck Todd on Meet the Press this past Sunday what he thinks the Republican Party should do in 2016: nominate a governor for president. Walker was clearly thinking of himself when he said that, but it’s a theme that his ally/antagonist New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has also sounded (though doubtless he was thinking of a different name on the top of the ticket) as well as other less self-interested observers. But while the arguments for putting a person with executive experience outside of Washington in the Oval Office seem conclusive, the assumption that a governor is the only possible choice may not hold up under scrutiny or the travails of the presidential campaign trail.

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Flush off his third election victory in four years, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker wasn’t shy about telling Chuck Todd on Meet the Press this past Sunday what he thinks the Republican Party should do in 2016: nominate a governor for president. Walker was clearly thinking of himself when he said that, but it’s a theme that his ally/antagonist New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has also sounded (though doubtless he was thinking of a different name on the top of the ticket) as well as other less self-interested observers. But while the arguments for putting a person with executive experience outside of Washington in the Oval Office seem conclusive, the assumption that a governor is the only possible choice may not hold up under scrutiny or the travails of the presidential campaign trail.

Walker’s case for nominating a governor is based partly on the notion that a president must be a proven executive, partly on the general disgust most Americans have for the inhabitants of Washington D.C. and partly on the ideological preference of conservatives for devolving power to the states away from the federal government:

SCOTT WALKER: We offer a fresh approach. Any of us, now 31 governors across the country have the executive experience from outside of Washington to provide a much better alternative to the old, tired, top-down approach you see out of Washington D.C. We need something fresh, organic, from the bottom up. And that’s what you get in the states.

CHUCK TODD: You’re not deferring to Paul Ryan, then? It sounds like you believe a governor, not a member of Congress should be the Republican nominee?

SCOTT WALKER: Paul Ryan may be the only exception to that rule. But overall, I think governors make much better presidents than members of Congress.

The first question to ask about this thesis is historical. Have governors always been better presidents than members of the Senate or House?

Conservatives start this discussion by citing the obvious example of Barack Obama, a senator with not even much experience on the Hill who never ran anything before arriving in the White House and has, in their view, run the country straight into the ground since then. In that sense, if one leaves aside his unique historical status as our first African-American president, we can view him as a latter-day Warren Harding, another senator who presided (albeit briefly before he died in office) over a government that was a disaster. By contrast, some of the most effective presidents in our history have been governors. Examples from the last century include Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Franklin Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, and Theodore Roosevelt.

But not all governors make good presidents and not all good presidents were governors.

Leaving George W. Bush out of the discussion (liberals think him the worst president since Nixon or Harding while conservatives believe history will judge him more kindly), the name of Jimmy Carter should stand as a definitive rebuke to those who say all governors are better presidents than other individuals. And while he still has many admirers, Woodrow Wilson also strikes me as a cautionary tale for those who laud gubernatorial virtues, though it can be argued that his memory is more of an argument against electing university presidents than governors.

As for non-governors who were effective in the White House, there is Dwight Eisenhower, who proved a career as a staff officer in the U.S. Army was as good a preparation for the presidency as it was for leading the Allied Expeditionary Force against Hitler’s Nazi empire. Even more counterintuitive for the Walker-Christie thesis is Harry Truman, who was only a senator and yet proved capable of running the country and making the sort of executive decisions on foreign policy, military, and domestic issues that are the epitome of managerial accountability (“the buck stops here”). Less convincing is the example of Lyndon Johnson, who demonstrated that knowledge of how Congress works could enable a president to achieve an ambitious legislative agenda while still being hopelessly ill-prepared for crucial foreign-policy issues.

These comparisons, like all presidential rating games, make for fun arguments but don’t tell us much about what is truly important in a future president. Though being a governor is probably the best preparation for the presidency, it must be recognized that operating a successful state house doesn’t remotely compare with the enormous burdens of running the United States of America. For all of the good qualities governors like Walker or John Kasich in Ohio, Mike Pence in Indiana, or even Rick Perry of Texas bring to a presidential campaign, such persons have no idea of the intense scrutiny that goes with running for the White House. Just as Perry, who flopped as badly as anyone in history in his 2012 presidential run, showed us that being governor didn’t mean he was ready for the challenge, so, too, might even as battle-scarred a politician as Walker fail to be ready for prime time. As for Christie, the different expectations for potential presidents make it hard to imagine anyone who likes to tell rude questioners to “sit down and shut up” navigating through the retail politics of Iowa and New Hampshire. The same applies to senators who may not be prepared for the rigors of the presidential election gauntlet.

A resume as a government executive is important. The GOP needs no novices who want to parachute into politics (sorry, Dr. Ben Carson). The ability to distinguish oneself from Washington dysfunction or the impression that they are part and parcel of the same corrupt federal establishment is also a key selling point especially if you are planning on running against a woman like Hillary Clinton.

But a successful Republican nominee needs more than that. They’ll need a principled vision of America’s future, both at home and abroad and the guts to stand up to the chattering classes who clamor for more government. A governor might fit that bill but so might a senator. That’s why we need tough campaigns to sort out the presidential wheat from the political chaff. Perhaps the person the Republicans need is a governor. But we won’t know that until all these would-be presidents put themselves to the test against equally talented candidates from other backgrounds. Being a governor or even an ex-governor (like Jeb Bush) will help. But it is no guarantee of electoral victory, let alone a competent presidency.

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Powerless President? Obama’s Lame Excuse

In the wake of the VA scandal, President Obama’s cheering section in the press has been scrambling to come up with an excuse for his latest lackluster response to a governmental problem. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told the country that Obama first heard about the disaster at the VA while watching television, the same story we were told about his discovery of the IRS scandal as well as other instances of potential misconduct. But the fact that this absentee president is incapable of coming up with original excuses about his slow response time to the fiascos that occur on his watch is just the tip of the iceberg.

Though Obama arrived at the Oval Office claiming that he would transform America in a blaze of hope and change, he has proven incapable of fixing the most mundane issues, let alone reboot the country’s political culture or turn back the oceans. Obama’s presidency is stuck in neutral as his second term drifts steadily into lame duck territory. Washington gridlock, the complexities of foreign problems that the president thought would be solved by the magic of his personality (Russian “reset,” Iran engagement, and Middle East peace), and the difficulty of rolling out his signature health-care law have left him looking not so much defeated as helpless. When he spoke to the country about the VA scandal that may have led to as many as 40 deaths of veterans kept waiting for medical service, he lacked passion. Even though VA Secretary Eric Shinseki had clearly failed in his five and half years to address the agency’s problems, Obama was prepared to give him more time. The administration’s slow response was seen as a function of a government that simply didn’t work. For those not still in thrall to Obama’s historic status this state of affairs is a damning indictment of his leadership style and inability to hold his appointees accountable for incompetence and/or failure.

But according to liberal blogger Ezra Klein, the fault lies not with Obama but with his office. In a piece published on his Vox site, Klein makes the argument that it is unfair to expect Obama to succeed when the presidency is designed to be ineffective. In Klein’s view, instead of blaming Obama for being an absentee president, we should be scolding James Madison and Alexander Hamilton for crafting a Constitution that didn’t provide a president with the ability to govern because of the checks and balances incorporated into the system. Those who differ with this view are, he wrote, subscribing to a “Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency” in which the commander-in-chief is invested with magical powers.

This is, to put it mildly, bunk. No American president who respects the Constitution (a dubious proposition when applied to Obama) can be a dictator. But the presidency has evolved from its bare-bones origins at the Federal Convention of 1787 into one that both liberals and conservatives have often dubbed an “imperial” institution. To say that Obama hasn’t the power to succeed is to engage in denial of both history and logic.

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In the wake of the VA scandal, President Obama’s cheering section in the press has been scrambling to come up with an excuse for his latest lackluster response to a governmental problem. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told the country that Obama first heard about the disaster at the VA while watching television, the same story we were told about his discovery of the IRS scandal as well as other instances of potential misconduct. But the fact that this absentee president is incapable of coming up with original excuses about his slow response time to the fiascos that occur on his watch is just the tip of the iceberg.

Though Obama arrived at the Oval Office claiming that he would transform America in a blaze of hope and change, he has proven incapable of fixing the most mundane issues, let alone reboot the country’s political culture or turn back the oceans. Obama’s presidency is stuck in neutral as his second term drifts steadily into lame duck territory. Washington gridlock, the complexities of foreign problems that the president thought would be solved by the magic of his personality (Russian “reset,” Iran engagement, and Middle East peace), and the difficulty of rolling out his signature health-care law have left him looking not so much defeated as helpless. When he spoke to the country about the VA scandal that may have led to as many as 40 deaths of veterans kept waiting for medical service, he lacked passion. Even though VA Secretary Eric Shinseki had clearly failed in his five and half years to address the agency’s problems, Obama was prepared to give him more time. The administration’s slow response was seen as a function of a government that simply didn’t work. For those not still in thrall to Obama’s historic status this state of affairs is a damning indictment of his leadership style and inability to hold his appointees accountable for incompetence and/or failure.

But according to liberal blogger Ezra Klein, the fault lies not with Obama but with his office. In a piece published on his Vox site, Klein makes the argument that it is unfair to expect Obama to succeed when the presidency is designed to be ineffective. In Klein’s view, instead of blaming Obama for being an absentee president, we should be scolding James Madison and Alexander Hamilton for crafting a Constitution that didn’t provide a president with the ability to govern because of the checks and balances incorporated into the system. Those who differ with this view are, he wrote, subscribing to a “Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency” in which the commander-in-chief is invested with magical powers.

This is, to put it mildly, bunk. No American president who respects the Constitution (a dubious proposition when applied to Obama) can be a dictator. But the presidency has evolved from its bare-bones origins at the Federal Convention of 1787 into one that both liberals and conservatives have often dubbed an “imperial” institution. To say that Obama hasn’t the power to succeed is to engage in denial of both history and logic.

Were we having this discussion in the 19th century rather than the 21st century, Klein might have a point. Up until the Civil War, American presidents had only a tiny federal bureaucracy to rule and lacked the ability to influence many domestic issues, though even then some larger-than-life characters like Andrew Jackson were able to wield enormous power by both constitutional and unconstitutional means. The vast expansion of the national budget and its consequent expansion of federal power that the Civil War helped create changed that. But even in the late 19th century, presidents had but a fraction of the ability to influence events that they do today.

However, in the 20th century, the quaint notions of the early republic with its part-time Congress (meeting only a few months out of each year) and tiny federal payrolls were forgotten as the presidency grew along with the country and the government. Contemporary presidents have at their disposal vast and numerous Cabinet departments and sundry agencies that have been gifted with virtually plenipotentiary powers over states and municipalities. They needn’t resort to attempts to govern by executive orders as Obama has done to throw their weight around. As Obama proved in his first term, the bully pulpit of the presidency and the ability to pressure Congress to act can result not only in giving the man in the White House a trillion-dollar stimulus but also the ability to transform America’s health-care system.

But Klein tells us not to believe our lying eyes and ears and instead believe that Obama’s doldrums are the function of his office. He dissects criticisms of Obama’s inability to work with Congress or to effectively communicate his agenda to the nation by claiming that those who have done so were flukes. Such “Green Lantern Presidents” as Lyndon Johnson, whose legendary ability to ram bills through Congress despite bitter opposition makes Obama’s refusal to deal with the legislative branch look particularly bad, and Ronald Reagan, who used the bully pulpit of the White House to change both foreign and domestic policies, were operating in different times and under different circumstances. He also asserts that partisan divisions are exacerbated by stark ideological splits with the opposition party always believing that it is in their interests to oppose the president on every conceivable issue (as both George W. Bush and Obama could attest).

It is true that the 21st century president has problems that even Reagan and LBJ didn’t face in eras where each party had its share of liberals and conservatives. But the power of the presidency has continued to expand as well. As Obama has perhaps belatedly realized the courts have given him wide latitude to enact policy on issues like carbon emissions. He can also use a Judiciary Department to selectively enforce laws in ways that overshadow the will of Congress.

But none of this gainsays the fact that Obama is simply incompetent in the business of political persuasion and in administration. That he lacks these basic skills that have always been considered essential to a successful presidency cannot be lain at the feet of Madison and Hamilton.

I write more about Klein’s potshot at Alexander Hamilton in a subsequent post.

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