Senators vs. Governors, and a Theory About Presidential Cool

“Who’s got two thumbs and no national appeal?”

The first candidate to drop out of the primary was a three-term governor of the second largest state which had one of the best job and economic growth records in the country. The second to drop out was a very conservative governor of a blue state who managed to win three elections in four years, while showing enough political savvy to demolish the democratic opposition on an issue of key ideological salience to conservative voters.

Tim Pawlenty, another accomplished governor of a Midwestern state, met the same ignominious fate four years ago. The eventual nominee, Mitt Romney, while a former governor, distanced himself from his tenure in the MA State House and focused almost exclusively on his business acumen. And of course, Barack Obama was the first sitting senator to be elected president since JFK.

Chris Christie is now the only viable current governor left in the race (sorry John Kasich). It’s senators as far as the eye can see (okay, and a couple CEOs.) What’s happening? A Governorship has been the official path to the presidency for half a century. All that executive experience! All those concrete accomplishments! But is there a new trend developing at the national level that’s selecting for senators over governors? What’s driving it? Some ideas:

  1. Polarization and dysfunction in Congress deemphasizes domestic policy as a fruitful field of play for a president, encouraging him to focus where he has the most power: foreign affairs. (There’s only so much you can criticize the president’s budget policy in an age where budgets never get passed; nor anything else.) The more the president acts in the world, the more salience these issues have in the media and in the electorate, and the more campaign fodder there is for the next round of candidates, who will be expected to have a certain basic mastery of the policies they are purporting to criticize. Senators deal with these issues every day in committee, and receive top-level briefings and go on CODELs to regions of interest. Governors are mostly clueless about foreign policy because their jobs don’t require it, nor did their likely preceding jobs as local politicians or businesspeople. This leads to a massive disadvantage in an age where the spotlight turns on you eight months before the first primary vote. There’s no time to “hit the books” and “catch up” in the midst of a heated primary. But there’s plenty of time for you to be exposed as a fool.
  2. Increased polarization in the electorate and in Congress is causing every issue to be filtered through the lens of the national partisan divide. That divide is the increasingly dominant way in which people access and makes sense of political life. (Look at the reaction to the Pope’s various opinions. We can’t even consider that they might not spring from, or be a direct comment on, our specifically American national partisan bullshit. Part of that is pure solipsism, but it’s also that national politics and partianship is swallowing up all the bandwith.) Governorships are following suit: state level arguments are increasingly mirroring the national partisan debate. This trend toward nationalization increases the relevance of senators who spend all their days swimming in the fetid waters of the national partisan divide. Even though they accomplish nothing concrete, they help define the parameters of this divide, which then filter down to governors. In this way senators wield great influence, while governors are being marginalized in this trend. Also, perhaps the demise of local media and the rise of national outlets both on cable and the web further privileges politicians operating at the national level.
  3. Executive experience is important, and governors have it, but this seeming advantage is not as relevant as it used to be. In the age of the billion dollar campaign that lasts 2.5 years, anyone who wins a primary and general election has de-facto earned and proven superlative executive experience, regardless of their previous job. Managing such a massive national organization is not easy, and it exposes character and managerial flaws. Being a sitting governor is no guarantee that you’re up to this task (hello Scott Walker).
  4. Midwestern governors, at least in the Pawlenty/Scott Walker mold, tend to be a bit boring and parochial in their thinking and experience. Here’s my theory: The age of boring and parochial is officially over in national politics, and Barack Obama has hastened it, whether you like his politics or not. Republicans loved to mock Obama’s cool factor as evidence of vacuity and lack of seriousness. But I think his (and Michelle’s!) evident cosmopolitanism has upped the game permanently in terms of what the nation expects of a president re: their cultural relevance, charisma, and relative sophistication. I wrote this about Scott Walker a month and a half ago:

“Part of the reason why I think Scott Walker is finished: his self-embrace as being “aggressively normal” has totally misread the zeitgeist. He thinks we want the opposite of Obama now. But Obama has made the White House a place for cool people with interesting backgrounds and well-fitting suits. I think this applies doubly, triply, to Michelle. I think even people who hate their politics have nonetheless internalized this aspect of the presidency.”

I just have a feeling that we’re not returning to old dowdy white guys who seem proud of their provincialism. It’s telling that after deriding Obama as a mere “celebrity” 8 years ago, the current GOP frontrunner is an actual television celebrity from New York City, whose consumption habits are gauche to say the least, but probably signal as sophisticated to many GOP primary voters.

This is a tangential point, but conservatives crave cultural relevance. Here’s how I put it in a recent post: “That Trump is a bonafide celebrity is key to his appeal: He gives his supporters the vicarious cultural status they (tepidly) pretend to disdain, but from which they desperately seek membership and validation.” I think even downscale voters now cringe at someone like Walker bragging about shopping at Kohls. They want a touch of glamour in the presidency, and whether they’ll admit it or not, the Obamas are a big reason why.

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