Commentary: Govs, senators and presidents

By PATRICK REDDY   |   Jan. 30, 2003 at 4:35 PM
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SACRAMENTO, Jan. 30 (UPI) -- Democrats have received some mild good news lately as President George W. Bush's approval rating has finally dipped below 60 percent, perhaps giving them an opening. But the bad news is that the Democrats now have only one governor running, Howard Dean of Vermont, plus at least four members of Congress: Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri.

Florida Sen. Bob Graham is also an ex-governor who may run. Only a few sitting senators have been elected president --- Warren Harding and John Kennedy were the only two in the 20th century --- and no sitting House member has won in the last 120 years.

By contrast, four of the last five presidents have served as governor.

Theodore White wrote in "The Making of the President" in 1960 that "it is obviously far more dangerous to be a Governor than Senator." Over the last 40 years, governorships were more than twice as likely to change party control than U.S. Senate seats. About once every dozen years or so, like in 1980 or 1994, either party can gain over nine Senate seats. By contrast, gubernatorial offices routinely change hands every four, six or eight years due to the simple fact that governors are held responsible for the overall condition of their state (which they often have little control over).

But if it's much harder to be a governor, that also makes it a better training ground for future presidents. Ron Brownstein in the Los Angeles Times wrote: "Historically, the Senate has been less a launching pad than a graveyard for presidential ambitions." A long list of distinguished senators from parties have seen their presidential dreams frustrated: Republicans Robert Taft, Howard Baker and Bob Dole, and Democrats Ed Muskie, Ted Kennedy, Henry Jackson and Lloyd Bentsen. To cite Brownstein again: "The longest distance in U.S. politics may be the mile and a half down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House." Brownstein gives the edge to governors, especially from big states, due to their executive experience, their ability to raise money from a solid home base and their superior ability to run as "non-partisan outsiders."

The reason is fairly simple: governors are meant to be non-ideological "problem-solvers" while legislators are allowed to be ideological advocates. It's rare to see a governor as flamboyant as Ted Kennedy or Jesse Helms. (Jerry Brown was an obvious exception). Governors are expected to post concrete accomplishments and are judged accordingly.

But governors also avoid bitter partisan issues in Washington. About once a generation, an important issue before Congress becomes a defining vote. If a senator or representative votes the wrong way, their career as a presidential candidate is badly hurt. The public seems to believe that when a congressperson blows the call on the biggest vote of the decade, they're pretty much not presidential timber. (These votes usually become apparent in retrospect, so it's anybody's guess as to whether the Bush administration will provide any defining moments in the first decade of the new millennium).

For example, isolationism ruled American politics during the 1920s and 1930s. Pearl Harbor ended the isolationist argument once and for all, on Dec. 7, 1941 and discredited anyone associated with those arguments. (Democrats won five straight national elections from 1932 to 1948). In 1952, when the GOP came back to power, they did so with the great World War II hero Eisenhower, who had impeccable internationalist credentials. (Time called him "The man who beat Hitler.") Republicans didn't even want to chance running someone who had voted isolationist. Since Pearl Harbor, no Republicans ran who were not unambiguously for NATO, the UN, etc. An entire generation of isolationist pols perished or changed their positions after 1941.

The next big vote was also about foreign policy. In August of 1964, North Vietnam attacked two Americans warships in the Gulf of Tonkin. Congress passed a resolution authorizing the administration to take all "necessary actions to deter North Vietnamese aggression." (Only two senators voted against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution). President Johnson interpreted Congress' action as a declaration of war against North Vietnam. He would eventually send 500,000 Americans to fight in Southeast Asia and saw his presidency destroyed by the conflict. The war became the most divisive issue in American politics since the Civil War. Since then, no one who voted in favor of the Tonkin resolution has been elected president. (Former GOP House of Representatives leader Jerry Ford did inherit the office after Watergate, but he was appointed vice president and never elected to national office).

Two other possible votes in the last generation involving economics that could turn out to be "defining issues" are the Reagan and Clinton budgets. Since Reagan's tax cuts passed in 1981, no one who voted against them has won the White House (though former Tennessee Congressman Al Gore did win the popular vote in 2000). In 1993, Bill Clinton's deficit reduction package passed without a single Republican vote. Senators Bob Dole and Phil Gramm ran against Clinton in 1996 and struggled mightily. Sure, both senators lost because they lacked charisma, but one reason they couldn't get any traction against Clinton was that his budget had already reduced the federal deficit by over 80 percent. Indeed, by Election Day 1996, the stock market had doubled, interest rates were lower, median family income was up by over 20 percent and the "misery index" of inflation and unemployment combined was the lowest in over 30 years. Republicans looked awfully foolish when Clinton's team gleefully read back their predictions of immediate economic doom if the Clinton plan passed.

One of the reasons governors have an advantage over senators in running for president is that they don't have any embarrassing votes to explain. Governors can avoid ideological controversies and run as problem-solvers who seek to "clean up the mess in Washington, change the tone and bring people together, etc." Governors can point to local records fixing problems and use what is sometimes the most devastating political strategy of all: "when all else fails, change the subject."

Bill Clinton was a good example of this pattern. After President George H.W. Bush's hugely successful prosecution of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, most of the big-name Democrats like Mario Cuomo and Lloyd Bentsen declined to challenge him. As the Arkansas governor, Clinton was not hamstrung by a vote against the Persian Gulf War and he picked Gore to be his running mate, one of only 10 Democratic senators who voted for the war. With the help of Ross Perot's focus on the economy, Clinton changed the subject away from foreign policy and won.

CNN political analyst William Schneider says an ideologue is someone who insists that a certain idea couldn't possibly ever work, even if it's working at that very moment. Democrats lost every argument over Reaganomics in the 1980s because economic conditions were simply better under Reagan than during the 1970s. By the same token, no Republican won the policy argument with Clinton in 1996 because every aspect of life in America --- unemployment, crime, welfare, and the deficit --- was better after four years of Clinton. George W. Bush won in 2000 not by attacking Clinton's economic performance, but by promising to fix the ethical problems of the Clinton years. It was a textbook campaign by a governor.

The two sitting senators in the last century to break through are exceptions that prove the rule. In the aftermath of World War I in 1920, any Republican would have beaten any Democrat, regardless of whether they were legislators or executives. One reason John F. Kennedy was able to defeat Richard Nixon in 1960 (besides his sharp performance in the televised debates) was that Nixon couldn't point to any votes by Kennedy that were embarrassing. Kennedy's voting record was in the mainstream, so Nixon couldn't get any traction. And Kennedy hardly ran on his record in the Senate because: a) he was a relatively inexperienced Washington hand; b) he was so busy running for president he had a rather spotty attendance record. Instead, JFK won on his ideas: "getting the country moving again" after Eisenhower's extremely low-key second term.

Though every Democrat in Congress but one voted for the war on terrorism, it's highly unlikely that any of them will be able to overmatch this President Bush on foreign policy. Therefore, Democrats will have to win on other issues. And a governor is most likely best able to shift the country's focus. On paper, Florida's Bob Graham looks to be the strongest Democrat: he's well respected in the Senate, he represents the swing state in national politics, and he's a former governor with decision-making experience.

It's too soon to judge if President George W. Bush's policies will remain so popular that opposing them is suicidal for Democratic presidential candidates. If Bush is an obvious failure, then just about any Democrat --- either a Washington Establishment figure or an outsider --- will be able to win in 2004. But if the second President Bush is any kind of success, then Democrats in 2004 and 2008 would be wise to look for their own candidate who can plausibly run as an outsider. Barring the Democrats nominating a war hero from the Afghanistan/Mideast conflict, it would almost have to be a governor or former governor from the South or West.


(Patrick Reddy serves as a consultant to California's Assembly Democrats).

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