Running without a day job

RUNNING WITHOUT A DAY JOB…. Since Carter and Reagan were able to mount successful presidential campaigns after leaving their governorships behind, many have come to believe the best way to launch a national campaign is to run without a day job.

The argument, at first blush, seems to make some sense. If a candidate has no professional or official responsibilities, he or she can be a full-time candidate without distractions or potentially controversial governing decisions. And if rival candidates do have day jobs, he or she would conceivably have an edge.

In light of Sarah Palin’s unexpected resignation, the argument is up front and center. Romney is already a full-time candidate, and if Palin wants to keep up, the thinking goes, she can’t spend her time running the executive branch of a state. Logically, then, the sooner she can hit the trail, the better her chances — even if that means quitting 18 months early, in anticipation of a presidential contest that’s 30 months away.

The problem, though, is that the argument doesn’t stand up well to real-world scrutiny. Bruce Reed had a good piece on this:

In the last 20 years, perseverers have prospered while quitters withered. Bill Clinton won a fifth term as governor of Arkansas before launching his 1992 campaign. George W. Bush won a second term in Texas two years before running for president in 2000.

Compare that with the dismal track record of strategic quitters. In 1986, Gary Hart chose not to run for a third Senate term and went on to meet Donna Rice. In 2004, John Edwards passed up a second Senate term and went on to meet Rielle Hunter.

Bill Bradley’s decision not to seek a fourth term in 1996 helped cost him the Democratic nomination in 2000 to Al Gore, whose slogan was “stand and fight.” Bob Dole’s spectacular resignation from the Senate after he clinched the Republican nomination in June 1996 earned his campaign a few days of good press. But when his White House bid was over, Dole no longer had the Senate job he had loved.

Time after time, quitting has turned out to be the “worthless, easy path” that Sarah Palin insists it isn’t. What makes her sudden resignation especially troubling, though, is not the flawed strategy so much as her jubilation and relief in putting the statehouse in her rear mirror. Palin’s resignation is a symptom of what’s crippling the Republican Party of late: Governing has become an unwelcome distraction.

In 2008, McCain was a sitting senator while running against a team of unemployed rivals (Romney, Huckabee, Giuliani), and McCain won easily. In 2004, John Kerry faced off against Howard Dean, when Dean didn’t have a day job. It didn’t help.

The counter-argument is that voters might resent a sitting officeholder who shirks his or her duties to run for president. But when was the last time this actually happened?