Not long ago, running a state was the surest way to become president. What changed?
For a short period right after the Cold War — roughly 1992 to 2004 –Americans had a clear vision of what they wanted in a president: a middle-aged, multi-term, reform-minded governor. This made perfect sense, because governor is the job that most closely mirrors the presidency.
Governors run an executive branch with thousands of employees, make cabinet appointments, tussle over budgets, sign legislation into law, veto legislation they oppose, appoint judges, and respond to natural disasters. When they want to get their agenda enacted, they have to persuade legislators. Sometimes they have to fire cabinet appointees or heads of state agencies. They run welfare and public-health programs. They oversee state police forces, prison systems, environmental-protection agencies, and tourism offices, and enforce state laws. Perhaps the only thing presidents do that they don’t is conduct foreign policy.
What’s more, from a voter’s perspective, governors are the easiest presidential candidates to evaluate. Year by year, they build up a clear record: Their performance can be measured by their state’s unemployment, crime, and poverty rates, its economic growth, its public-school test scores, and its budgetary balance. While they can try to spin all those metrics when running for president, voters generally know if they’re lying. Either they accomplished what they set out to do, or they didn’t. Either they got the agenda they campaigned on passed into law, or they didn’t. Either the trains ran on time, or they didn’t.
By comparison, representatives and senators have it easy as presidential candidates. No one expects legislators in the minority to get much passed. They can take credit for voting for a bill in a campaign commercial and conveniently forget to mention that it didn’t pass, or that it passed unanimously. They can take credit for bills that other lawmakers shepherded to passage. They can easily blur the line between “I led the fight on this issue” and “I gave a speech on the floor when the bill came up for a vote.” If confronted with a vote that could prove problematic to their White House ambitions, they can vote “present.” If they hem, haw, or equivocate, not many people notice.
If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably aware that, for some reason, governors have gone out of style in presidential politics since George W. Bush left office, unless you want to count Mitt Romney — who had been an ex-governor for six years when he claimed the GOP nomination in 2012 — or Mike Pence and Tim Kaine, the ex-governors who stood for vice president in 2016. Republicans had no shortage of governors running four years ago: Chris Christie, Jim Gilmore, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, George Pataki, Rick Perry, Scott Walker. Yet a large plurality of Republicans chose Donald Trump instead, and in the process repudiated everything that the middle-aged, multi-term, reform-minded governors stood for.
Now, Democrats are following suit. None of the few ex-governors to enter the race for the party’s 2020 nomination — Steve Bullock, John Hickenlooper, Jay Inslee, Deval Patrick — has proven viable. With a wide variety of options, Democratic donors and poll respondents decided they weren’t interested in middle-aged, multi-term, reform-minded governors.
Yes, you could argue that the two mayors in the field who are still considered viable offer voters executive experience. But Pete Buttigieg has never run anything larger than South Bend, Ind., which has a little more than 100,000 residents, and his record in that job is modest at best. And the political career of Michael Bloomberg, probably the Democratic candidate who comes closest to fitting the bill — New York City, which he governed for three terms as mayor, has 8 million or so residents –has been defined more by the billions he made as a titan of industry than by anything he’s accomplished politically. Bloomberg’s MO as a politician has always been to buy consensus rather than building it. New York magazine once labeled him an “autocrat for the people.” With an ability to wildly outspend all potential rivals, he was immune from the struggles of a typical politician as New York’s mayor, and now he’s trying to replicate the same approach nationally.
Meanwhile, the race’s front-runner, Bernie Sanders, is asking Americans to imagine what his socialist agenda would be like in practice, both because nothing of its sort has ever been tried by a president, and because his own record of governing experience is short. He hasn’t been an executive since leaving his post as mayor of Burlington, Vt. in 1989, when Buttigieg was a second grader. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar are asking Americans to get a sense of how they would perform in the White House from examining their time in the Senate. Joe Biden was a heartbeat away from the top job for eight years, but no one saw him as the man running the show. He has spent the past year trying to persuade Americans to credit him for all the parts of the Obama record they liked and none of the parts they didn’t like.
It is, in short, a pretty sorry field of candidates to knock off an incumbent president running in some of the best economic times in recent memory. You could argue that the race would already be over if the president in question were anyone other than Donald Trump. Trump’s attorney general is begging him to stop tweeting about ongoing court cases, his former national-security adviser calls his North Korea policy a failure, the former director of his National Economic Council confessed to being “astounded” by his “lack of basic understanding” about economic issues, and his former secretary of defense told jokes about his laziness. Yet the vast majority of Republicans are fine with him.
Perhaps governors have gone out of style because governing has gone out of style.