The Former Governor Factor

If you’re thinking the jumbled Republican presidential field does not matter because whomever gets the nomination can’t win – think again. A Republican could well take the White House in 2012.

At this point in the 1992 election cycle, the elder George Bush held an 89 percent approval rating. Back then, Democratic figures including Mario Cuomo did not enter the 1992 race because they thought the elder Bush was “unbeatable” – just as today many Republicans are not entering the race, thinking Obama is unbeatable.

But Bush was defeated by Bill Clinton, who, a year before his victory, was a low-name-recognition outsider with personal baggage.

Clinton beat a popular incumbent with a fantastic approval rating. For the 2012 election, Barack Obama is just as vulnerable as the elder Bush, if not even more so. Obama currently has an approval rating of 23 percent.

Upsets aren’t unusual. At this point in the 2008 election cycle, Hillary Clinton was viewed as having an insurmountable lead for the Democratic nomination. At this stage in 2004, John Kerry was thought to be running a vanity candidacy. By Election Day, a small swing in the Ohio count would have put Kerry into the White House. As for Ronald Reagan, at this point in the 1980 election cycle, he was the favorite to win the Republican nomination, but incumbent Jimmy Carter was expected to retain his post in the general election. Reagan ended up taking 44 states.

Carter had a rocky presidency, but the power of incumbency was thought to be too great for Reagan to overcome. Obama, despite having a rocky presidency, is expected by many to be reelected on the basis of incumbency. Yet two of the last five incumbents to stand for reelection were defeated. Obama could make it three of the last six.

Of the Republican field, those who have the best chance to unseat Obama are Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman, for a simple reason – governorship.

Four of the last six presidents were governors before ascending to the White House: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. (The elder George Bush had been vice-president, while Obama had been a senator.)

Of the most recent six presidents, party doesn’t tell much, since three were Democrats and three Republicans. Other major distinctions don’t tell much either. Two were former members of Congress (Obama and the elder Bush). Two were former active-duty military (Carter and the elder Bush). One had held high federal government posts (the elder Bush had been CIA director and United Nations ambassador). Two had run a small business (Carter and the elder Bush). One had run a large business (the younger Bush). There’s no other factor among the most recent six presidents that leaps out like governor status.

Right now Romney seems to be the frontrunner, which, of course, is a mixed blessing. His aura of experience and reasonableness could prove quite appealing to voters.

Perry continues to have the potential to light a populist fire. But don’t sell Huntsman short because he is low in the polls – Obama had been at that point, too. But Obama took the White House in part on the strength of being Not Just Another Politician. Of all the 2012 candidates, Huntsman is the one who is Not Just Another Politician.

So why are governors so appealing as presidential contenders? Running a statehouse is the closest thing to running the White House. It’s a real job with executive authority, unlike being in Congress, where windbag behavior dominates. Americans seem to think more fondly of state governments than of the federal government, rightly or wrongly viewing states as better-run. Governors benefit from state finances containing a hefty share of bookkeeping illusion, while the fiscal recklessness of the Washington establishment cannot be disguised. And many widely admired former presidents – Reagan, FDR, Woodrow Wilson – were governors first.

Ideally, a presidential candidate is a former, not current, governor. That conveys the prestige of governorship, while leaving the candidate not responsible for whatever’s going wrong in his state right now. Romney and Huntsman can argue that they left Massachusetts and Utah in fine shape. Perry, still in office, must shoulder some blame for current defects of Texas public schools and health care.

So don’t assume Obama is a shoe-in for reelection. And of the Republican field, keep your eyes on Romney and Huntsman. They are the former governors who seek the White House, and a former governor is a fine thing to be.

[Cross-posted atReuters.com]

Gregg Easterbrook

Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly and the Atlantic. He's also a columnist for ESPN.com.