Washington Watch: Do governors make better presidents?

With governors stampeding toward the starting gate, foreign policy in general and Israel in particular aren’t likely to be prime targets early in the campaigns.

Obama and Chris Christie comfort a storm victim 370 (R) (photo credit: Larry Downing / Reuters)
Obama and Chris Christie comfort a storm victim 370 (R)
(photo credit: Larry Downing / Reuters)
Chris Christie’s presidential prospects may be sinking faster than a jumper off the George Washington Bridge, and Mitt Romney, according to Politico’s Jonathan Martin, may be dreaming of getting “back in the game” for a third White House run, or maybe not, according to The New York Times.
With or without them, Republicans want to make this year’s congressional election and the 2016 presidential race a referendum on Barack Obama, even though he won’t be on any ballots. Leading the charge will be a squadron of Republican governors, who will argue that the inexperienced first-term junior senator from Illinois wasn’t ready for prime time – something also heard from some disappointed Democrats – and what’s needed to run the country is someone with their kind of government executive experience.
Obama isn’t their only target. First they’ll try to knock off some of their fellow Republicans who share an Obama trait: charismatic freshman senators, particularly the tea party trio of Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has been going around the country saying the next president has “got to be an outsider.” In fact, he says, both the presidential and vice presidential candidate should be sitting or former governors.
He is only one on a long list of current and past Republican governors dreaming of mounting their own “I hate Washington” campaign that would reward them with four to eight years in the dreaded city’s government housing.
Their message: while those blowhards in Washington were shutting down the government, we kept it operating back home. Senators debate, we govern.
They’re the problem, we’re the solution.
Christie’s career may be in a tailspin and he will be lucky to hang on to his day job; he’s been replaced as front-runner in some polls by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. Huckabee, a 2008 also-ran, is an ordained Baptist minister who’s been making a good living as a talk show host and may be reluctant to give it up. No contender in either party has been to Israel more often and is better informed about the Jewish state, but his domestic politics are so conservative that he is unlikely to attract much Jewish support beyond some right-wing millionaires, and he’s out scouting for them now.
Other governors and ex-governors who look in the mirror and see the next president of the United States include Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, John Kasich of Ohio, Rick Snyder of Michigan, Mike Pence and Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Rick Perry of Texas, Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Jeb Bush of Florida.
Walker and Kasich must first win re-election this fall. Kasich, Jindal and Pence have previously served in Congress.
Bush has the best ties to the Republican establishment, Hispanic ties (his wife), high name recognition and a mother who doesn’t think he should run. It is questionable, however, whether the country wants a third president Bush.
Seventeen of the 44 presidents had been governors, most recently George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
I’m not making a case for or against electing governors. They bring the executive experience of running government, working with legislatures and making decisions. But they have a mixed record as presidents.
The great advantage of governors in 2016 will be that they’re relatively free of the taint of having been part of the most unpopular Congress in history and, particularly for Republicans, the one that shut down the government and is possessed by right-wing ideologues who consider compromise a dirty word.
For many Republicans the focus on nominating a governor is seen as the key to defeating Hillary Clinton. They have been preparing their case – keeping the Benghazi issue alive – and will paint her as the ultimate Washington insider.
In Walker’s words, Republicans will beat her by being “completely focused on being outsiders, taking Washington on, successful reformers in states.”
The former first lady and secretary of state has sucked all the oxygen out of the contest on the Democratic side. There’s a group of wannabes waiting for her to decide whether to run, including Vice President Joe Biden, and they all recall how inevitable she was in 2008, until she wasn’t.
The only one openly preparing is Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who recently hired a New York fundraiser to plow the fertile fields of Wall Street. He has strong ties to his state’s Jewish community and has led several trade missions to Israel.
If Clinton does not run, some likely contenders are Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and former Virginia governor and current senator Mark Warner, who must first get reelected this year. New York Governor Mario Cuomo has said he’s not interested in the job.
Walker, Jindal, Perry, Pence and other Republican governors will define themselves as problem solvers who can work across party lines, not ideologues, but in reality most are as ardently anti-abortion, pro-gun, anti-union, anti-gay and conservative as the Washington chapter of the tea party.
Governors are not usually as well known outside their home states as senators, but that is less relevant in this age of the 24/7 news cycle, social media and the Internet. Legislators have long records to nit-pick apart, with procedural and substantives votes, easy to misrepresent from both directions. Governors’ records are usually less nuanced.
With governors stampeding toward the starting gate, foreign policy in general and Israel in particular aren’t likely to be prime targets early in the campaigns.
But you can bet all the wannabes are reaching out to big pro-Israel campaign contributors. And many will soon be making photo-op pilgrimages to the Jewish state.
None of that will change the predictable calculus of the Jewish vote in 2016; candidates who echo the social conservative agenda and those with the harshest anti-government Tea Party rhetoric won’t get more than a trickle of Jewish votes.
Jewish Republican activists will once again predict a seismic Jewish shift to the GOP but it is just wishful thinking as their party’s contenders will need to run to the right during the primaries and, as they learned in 2012, Etch-a- Sketch doesn’t work.