Over the last 40 years, the people who have run for, and ultimately won, the presidency have almost always been governors with little legislative experience. This trend is hurting the quality of our leaders, and its cause is partisanship combined with a breakdown of our media culture.
Every recent president (besides Barack Obama) was a governor, and most had only minimal legislative experience to supplement their training as executives. Before becoming president, Jimmy Carter was Georgia's governor but also gained some legislative experience as a Georgia state senator. Ronald Reagan had no legislative experience whatsoever. His presidential successor, George H.W. Bush had only four years of legislative experience in the House of Representatives. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were prepared for the presidency solely by governorships. Notably, the two frontrunners for the GOP nomination, Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, have both been governors, and Romney has no legislative experience. Obama is the exception, as the first former senator to become president since Richard Nixon.
What explains the dominance of governors in recent times? There are many theories. Some claim governors are more attractive candidates because they are “executives in miniature” or because they have considerable power within their party (which used to be even more true when the rules for nominating conventions were different). But, I believe that governors have been dominant not because of some quality they have, but rather, because of what they don't have – a very long public record on issues of national concern.
It wasn’t always this way. It is almost humorous to read political scientists’ views on the positive impact of media attention on the success of legislators running for president. For example, back in 1976, Michael J. Robinson wrote that “television has made the Senate the mother of presidents. What we have is a symbiotic relationship, a TV-Senate alliance. The senators get coverage and stature; the networks get to cover, in self-fulfilling prophecy, the 'presidential contenders.'”
But, not any more. These days, exposing one's record to the media, and to extreme members of one's own party, is a recipe for political destruction. In today's partisan political climate, a record is just a stable target for attack. The only reason Obama was able to break the curse on legislators trying to become president is because, in the words of Ron Suskind, he was “a skinny target, with a public record of choices and outcomes thinner than that of most sitting governors.”
There is a real cost to this level of partisanship that discourages politicians from building a public record. Using the average rankings of presidents on a host of past polls, I compared the quality of three groups of presidents: those who had been governors but not legislators; those who had been legislators but not governors; and those who had been both. Presidents who had been exclusively governors were, on average, worse than the median president. Put another way, electing a candidate who has only been a governor (and never a legislator) is like putting the 25th best president from history in the White House (which some polls have as Rutherford B. Hayes). However, electing someone who has had only legislative experience and no experience as a governor is like electing the 23rd best president (Martin van Buren).
Most interesting though, is what happens when you combine the two. Presidents who have had experience as governors and legislators are, on average, significantly better leaders, about as good as the 18th best president (John Quincy Adams). Someone who appreciates the executive and legislative side of politics can fulfill his responsibilities better than someone who stubbornly looks at things from one angle.
This is further evidence of just how damaging our polarized political climate can be; partisanship goes beyond bickering over bills in Congress. It harms the quality of our president.
As voters, we need to take that lesson to heart. Balance begets balance. To get politicians who know both sides of our democratic process (legislative and executive), we need to be more willing to accept both sides of the ideological spectrum in our own politics. If we do that, then accumulating a legislative record won't be so detrimental, and we'll get more leaders like John Quincy Adams and fewer like Rutherford B. Hayes.
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