When Governors Were Mere “Local Figures”

One of the hardiest cliches of American politics is that we vastly prefer former governors to former Members of Congress as presidential timber. Some of this has to do with the 9 former governors of New York who have obtained major-party presidential nominations, mostly during the century or so when New York was both the largest and most politically marginal state. But the claim is now most often trotted out to disrespect non-gubernatorial folk, notably the current president of the United States and such future prospects as Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul.

In any event, at the LA Times, Jonathan Zimmerman reminds us there was a time in living memory when gubernatorial experience was the last thing anybody wanted in a president:

[A]fter World War II, experience in Washington came into vogue. All of our chief executives from Truman to Ford were former members of Congress, with the notable exception of ex-Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Amid the national security concerns of the Cold War, voters wanted their commander in chief to be someone who knew his way around the federal government.

Writing in 1959, pollster Louis Harris wondered whether an ex-governor could ever win the presidency again. “In a cosmic, atomic, mass-media age, governors have shrunk to … local figures,” Harris wrote.

This attitude has arisen selectively in the ensuing years, most notably among Republicans; you may recall the attacks on Bill Clinton in 1992 as “the failed governor of a small southern state.” But with St. Ronald Reagan beginning to blot out the sky among Republicans as the sole model for statesmanship, governor-bashing never sank in.

Now it’s true that one reason for the “America prefers governors” meme is that “governor” is synonymous with “pragmatic” in MSM-speak. It’s not clear that assumption will survive a cycle in which we could have Scott Walker, Mike Pence, Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal all run for president.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.