No, Governors Are Not Inherently Superior Candidates for President

For a professional political writer, nothing’s more fun than identifying a cliche your less esteemed colleagues are using that never made sense or has stopped making sense and just blowing it up. One that’s overdue for an explosion is the trope about governors making inherently superior presidential candidates. So that was the subject of my latest TPMCafe column.

Once you start looking at the 2016 Republican presidential field from this perspective, the first thing that jumps out at you is how many governors and former governors are struggling with home-state unpopularity or mistakes they made in office or both. It’s entirely possible, for example, that the entire Scott Walker candidacy could be unraveled by his growing problems in Wisconsin, where a lot of people who either voted for him or stayed home are angry at him for his nasty state budget proposals or for his pattern of doing highly controversial things (e.g., making Wisconsin a Dixie-style Right-to-Work state) he disclaimed or didn’t mention when running for office. That’s because his whole electability argument is that he won over swing voters in Wisconsin three times without compromising with the godless liberals. That argument loses a lot of punch if poll after poll starts showing Walker losing his state–by 52/40 in the latest Marquette Law School survey–to Hillary Clinton.

Then you look at Bobby Jindal, who is obviously miserable being, and miserable at being, governor of Louisiana. As a legendary whiz kid, diversity symbol, and rising star in the House, he was probably on the brink of being regarded as presidential timber before he became governor back in 2007. You think it might cross his mind now and then how much better positioned he’d be if he were now a Senator, or even still in the House, where he could pander to the conservative constituencies he is pursuing all day long without having to worry about Louisiana’s budget problems, which he is only making worse?

I won’t go through the whole column, but you get the idea. Perhaps governors aren’t afflicted with Washington Cooties, but they are actually required to do things that people notice, and are subject to the same dynamics of partisan polarization and bad ideology as anybody else. Republicans in Congress can go on and on and on about education vouchers or supply-side economics or privatizing government benefits without any risk of being held accountable for their “vision” being implemented. Governors are living much more unavoidably in the real world.

You can still make the case, I guess, that for this very reason governors make better presidents than, say, senators. But that’s not entirely clear, either. Sometimes governors get a good reputation simply for being in the right place at the right time, like a certain Texas governor who took office just as a national economic boom was gaining steam, and just as a decades-long realignment was pushing the last of his state’s conservative Democratic aristocracy in his direction. So he got to be a “reformer with results,” and his fellow governors had a lot to do with lifting him to a presidential nomination. Was he prepared to be president? Is his brother prepared now? Even though both men have benefited from their father’s vast network of moneyed elites, and from gubernatorial service, that’s really not so clear.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.