On Friday, I wrote about the theory put forward by House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy that a good president must first have been a governor of a state. His point was that Barack Obama’s inability to govern effectively is directly related to his lack of experience running anything but his mouth. I looked back at the bios of the 43 men who have been president and discovered that history’s verdict on this theory is inconclusive. Some of our greatest presidents have been governors: Thomas Jefferson, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan. But some have also had no such experience—including arguably the two greatest in George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. The same is true of the list of our worst presidents. I have two words for anyone who thinks being a governor guarantees success in the Oval Office: Jimmy Carter. While the complexity of the modern presidency and the enormous size of the government argue for the value of executive experience, leadership, not a resume, should be the priority.
But one possible Republican candidate for president doesn’t see this question in terms of shades of grey. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was profiled on ABC’s This Week this morning and left no doubt about his own interest in the presidency as well as in the fact that he thinks not being a governor is a deal breaker for Republicans looking for a 2016 standard-bearer. When asked about who should lead the GOP, he didn’t pull any punches:
I think its got to be an outsider, I think both the presidential and vice presidential nomination needs to be a former or current governor, people who have done successful things in their states, taken on big reforms, who are ready to move America forward.
Asked about senators such as Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul, Walker was just as blunt saying the Republican candidate had to be someone “removed from Congress.” Did that also apply to his Wisconsin political ally Paul Ryan? Walker again was not coy. Though he said, “if he [Ryan] had a fan club, I’d be the president of it,” he repeated that the GOP had to put forward a governor even if that meant rejecting in advance any consideration for the House Budget Committee chair and 2012 Republican vice presidential candidate.
While that sets up the Tea Party favorite as a clear alternative to Chris Christie, much of what Walker said in the interview with ABC’s Jon Karl will give little comfort to conservatives who reject the New Jersey governor as too much of a moderate to lead the GOP.
Walker’s talking point about the need for an outsider to reform Washington will resonate on the right that is boiling with discontent at the media surge that lifted Christie to prominence since his landslide reelection last week. But it’s not clear how they will react to his rejection of the Tea Party-led government shutdown. While many conservatives have treated criticism of the disastrous decision to shut down the government as something that only establishment traitors do, Walker dismissed it as counter-productive. Like Christie, Walker thinks Republicans need to make government work, not to sabotage it.
Speaking in this manner is good politics as well as good policy for Walker. The public was disgusted by the shutdown. So, too, are most Republicans who now realize that wasting weeks on a kamikaze attack on ObamaCare was not only futile but it also distracted the country from the administration’s health-care fiasco. While, as with all other 2016 speculation, a lot can happen in the next two years before Republicans start voting, Walker is now positioning himself as a unique character that can draw support from both the GOP establishment and the party’s grass roots.
Walker’s outsider credentials are impeccable. As ABC recalled for its viewers, the Wisconsin governor was liberal public enemy No. 1 in 2011 and 2012 as he made good on his campaign promises and sought to reform his state’s finances by challenging the ability of public worker unions to raid the treasury at will. His counter-attack against the left was successful, and it led to violent attempts by union thugs and their liberal allies to shut down the Wisconsin legislature and to personally intimidate the governor and his family. He persevered and then survived an ill-considered attempt to oust him from office via a recall. All that made him a hero to conservatives and Tea Partiers. Though Christie fought some of the same battles, his reforms did not go as far and he lost much of the goodwill he originally had from conservatives with his embrace of President Obama after Hurricane Sandy.
Where Walker probably won’t be able to outdo Christie will be in the manner of his reelection. Though he is a clear favorite to win next November, Walker won’t be matching Christie’s impressive landslide in a blue state. Where Christie is a candidate who has obvious appeal in a general election, Walker remains someone who appeals more to the Republican base than to independents or moderate Democrats as is the case with Christie.
Even though he is distancing himself from both Congress as well as the Tea Party that helped bring him to prominence, the left’s targeting of Walker renders him largely bulletproof to the “RINO” smears that are routinely launched at any Republican who understands that Ted Cruz’s judgment is not to be trusted. Likewise, Senate conservative firebrands will be hard pressed to knock Walker’s proven record of administrative excellence and courage in standing up to liberal attacks. The plethora of conservative candidates will mean they will be contending against each other for the affection of right-wing activists and voters. Walker’s obvious interest in the presidency also means that Christie will have some formidable competition for centrist Republicans, albeit from a candidate who can count on his share of conservative backers.
Being a governor doesn’t mean Walker or Christie or any other person with that line on their resume is up to the challenges of the presidency. But the unpopularity of Congress in the wake of the shutdown—something that the next budget battle isn’t likely to improve—means that we will be hearing more about a rivalry between these two in the months and years to come.