Governors Only For President?

A top House Republican suggested today that only Governor's should be President. His argument has both practical and historical merit.

white-house

House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy had some interesting comments this morning regarding the race for his party’s nomination in 2016:

House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) asserted Thursday that no one should become president without first serving as a governor.

McCarthy directed his attack at President Obama. He said the president is unwilling to negotiate with Republicans — a skill, McCarthy said, he could have been acquired while running a state.

“I’m a firm believer that I don’t think anyone should become president if they haven’t been a governor first,” he said on MSNBC’s “The Daily Rundown.”

“A governor picks a cabinet, has to work with both sides, can’t print money, has to have a balanced budget. The challenge in Washington is the ability to work together.”

McCarthy isn’t the first person to make this suggestion, it’s one that political observers have been making for years before Barack Obama became President. The basic premise, of course, is similar to the one that McCarthy made in the brief interview, namely that unlike legislators a Governor has executive experience running a government which is, of course, the primary task of a President. Additionally, of necessity, Governor’s gain experience working together with their respective state legislatures trying to get legislation passed, something that usually requires working across party aisles and building coalitions. This is even true in states where the Governor and the legislature come from the same party since it’s typically the case that the party leadership in the legislature has a different policy agenda than the Governor might be interested in pursuing. All of these is experience that would suit someone interested in becoming the President of the United States quite well.

Legislators on the other hand, don’t really gain any of this experience. They don’t execute laws, they typically just follow a policy agenda set by the party they belong to, and, perhaps most importantly, they tend to make a name for themselves nationally not by crossing party lines and compromising but by being the party firebrand. This last part, of course, has been especially true of Republicans on Capitol Hill in recent years.

There’s also a good deal of historical evidence to support McCarthy’s argument in favor of Governor’s being best suited to be President. Over the past 100 years in particular, the most effective Presidents in terms of getting their agenda through Congress have been Governors. For example, Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush were all Governors before becoming President and, while one may agree or disagree about whether or not these men were good Presidents, in each case there’s evidence in their Presidency to support the idea that their experience as Governor helped them greatly in their role as President of the United States. It’s also worth noting that of the nine Presidents who served two terms or portions of two terms, six were Governors, two were former Vice-Presidents, and one was the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II. Indeed, only one former Governor found himself thrown out of office after his first term. By contrast, only four siting legislators have ever been elected President and Obama is the only one of those to be reelected. (Although it’s probably fair to note that the other three, Garfield, Harding, and Kennedy died before they could stand for reelection.)

Politically, of course, people will see McCarthy’s comments as a shot across the bow at Senators who are quite obviously considering running for President in 2016 such as Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, or Ted Cruz and, perhaps, a subtle endorsement of potential candidacies on the part of people like Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, or Indiana Governor Mike Pence, whose name has been mentioned quite a lot recently in conversations about potential 2016 candidates. Perhaps that’s what McCarthy is aiming for here. Indeed, this could be seen as part of the GOP “establishment” push back against the Tea Party. Even if that’s the case though, he makes a very good point here that Republicans especially ought to pay attention to, because their best luck at getting back the White House is to go for someone with actual governing experience rather than a flash in the pan Senator who can give 21 hour speeches but doesn’t know the first thing about governing.

FILED UNDER: Politics 101, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.

Comments

  1. Tom says:

    There should not be an apostrophe in “governors.”

  2. Rafer Janders says:

    McCarthy directed his attack at President Obama. He said the president is unwilling to negotiate with Republicans — a skill, McCarthy said, he could have been acquired while running a state.

    If the very premise of your position — that President Obama is unwilling to negotiate with Republicans — is a bald-faced lie, why should we listen to anything else you say?

    And why does Doug not note the bald-faced lie, rather than proceeding as if it’s actually true?

  3. Rafer Janders says:

    There’s also a good deal of historical evidence to support McCarthy’s argument in favor of Governor’s being best suited to be President.

    Also, too, the plural of “Governor” is “Governors,” not “Governor’s.”

  4. Rafer Janders says:

    Also also too, if you’re not referring to a specific governor, correct usage is generally to use a smaller-case “governor / governors” rather than “Governor / Governors.”

  5. john personna says:

    I too think the apostrophe is the most interesting aspect of this story.

  6. Pinky says:

    My personal views on the subject – I want to see at least 8 years high-level experience. Cabinet, Senate, major office in the House, Governor, major Ambassador, top brass, Supreme Court. Limited “transfer credits” from private sector. Ideal candidate: Mike Johanns.

  7. Pharoah Narim says:

    Another small-thinking nut. This is just as stupid as thinking all businessmen make good leaders. Basically Republicans believe that whatever the current President has not been….should be required to be President. There are Governors who couldn’t lead a whore to bed. Leaders have a diversity of life paths. Let the people decide.

  8. Rafer Janders says:

    It’s also worth noting that of the nine Presidents who served two terms or portions of two terms, six were Governors, two were former Vice-Presidents, and one was the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II.

    It’s also worth noting that five presidents who were not former governors — Taylor, Lincoln, Garfield, Harding and Kennedy — died while in office, which tends to skew that average, especially with such a small sample set.

  9. Rafer Janders says:

    @Pinky:

    My personal views on the subject – I want to see at least 8 years high-level experience. Cabinet, Senate, major office in the House, Governor, major Ambassador, top brass, Supreme Court.

    Someone like Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld, say? Just to be sure we got a demonstrated degree of competence in order to avoid easily-foreseeable fiascoes?

  10. C. Clavin says:

    So does this mean Palin is ineligible because she abdicated her responsibilities and abandoned her post?

  11. rudderpedals says:

    The governor’s what only for president?

  12. Rafer Janders says:

    @Pinky:

    My personal views on the subject – I want to see at least 8 years high-level experience. Cabinet, Senate, major office in the House, Governor, major Ambassador, top brass, Supreme Court.

    Question: did you vote for or against one-term governor Mitt Romney?

  13. Pinky says:

    @Pharoah Narim: I just down-voted that, but let me flesh that out. I think it’s wrong to characterize this as something that Republicans believe. Kevin McCarthy believes it. I agree with letting the people decide.

  14. al-Ameda says:

    McCarthy directed his attack at President Obama. He said the president is unwilling to negotiate with Republicans — a skill, McCarthy said, he could have been acquired while running a state.

    First of all, I generally agree with the proposition that governors seem to be somewhat more prepared to be president than senators or representatives.

    Yet we know there are no guarantees on this count either – does any one really believe that as president, former governor Sarah Palin, or current governor Scott Walker, would be eager to negotiate with Democrats?

    Kevin McCarthy is of course disingenuous, to say the least, with his comments concerning a so-called unwillingness on Obama’s part to negotiate with Republicans – there was no negotiating middle ground to be had because “repeal or defund ACA” was the GOP non-negotiable position until the bitter end. Now, as we all know, Republicans are planning to leverage “Benghazi” to temporarily block Obama’s judicial appointments and that of Janet Yellen – where is the negotiating middle ground there? The problem is that since 1993, the Republican Party has not generally recognized the legitimacy of any Democratic administration.

  15. Rafer Janders says:

    “A governor picks a cabinet, has to work with both sides, can’t print money, has to have a balanced budget.”

    A president picks a cabinet, has to work with both sides, CAN print money, DOES NOT have to have a balanced budget.

    So, um, yeah….what’s the point of restricting it to governors, again?

  16. Rafer Janders says:

    @al-Ameda:

    Kevin McCarthy is of course disingenuous, to say the least, with his comments concerning a so-called unwillingness on Obama’s part to negotiate with Republicans

    He’s not being disingenuous — he’s lying.

  17. Rafer Janders says:

    Look, if anything, the name “George W. Bush” means we should think long and hard before we elect another governor as president…..

  18. Rafer Janders says:

    @al-Ameda:

    First of all, I generally agree with the proposition that governors seem to be somewhat more prepared to be president than senators or representatives.

    In recent history, some examples on the governor side include Carter and Bush II.

    On the non-governor side, some examples include Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, LBJ, Nixon, Ford, Bush I and Obama.

    Of those two groups, which seem more prepared to be president?

  19. Pharoah Narim says:

    @Pinky: Fair Point. The broad brush was a bit much.

  20. rudderpedals says:

    (McCarthy) said the president is unwilling to negotiate with Republicans — a skill, McCarthy said, he could have been acquired while running a state.

    Pretty dopey statement coming as it does from the majority whip whose leader was punished and barred from negotiating with the current President and who can’t count much less whip even his own Republicans.

  21. Pinky says:

    @Rafer Janders: Yes, that’s exactly what I meant. Any person who has met my conditions can automatically be president, no matter what, and they’re all equally good choices.

  22. Moosebreath says:

    Among those who never served as a Governor were some of our best Presidents: Washington, Lincoln, Truman, Eisenhower.

    I think this requires a bit more evidence than adduced so far.

  23. legion says:

    @C. Clavin: Palin is unfit for far too many reasons to fit in this tiny space.

  24. @Tom:

    Yes. I know. My mistake made in haste. Fixed

  25. al-Ameda says:

    @Rafer Janders:
    “In recent history, some examples on the governor side include Carter and Bush II.
    On the non-governor side, some examples include Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, LBJ, Nixon, Ford, Bush I and Obama.”
    Okay, you make a fair point there. I did say generally, but I’m not wedded to governors as presidents, it’s a very small sample size.. All of these people have flaws – consider governors Woodrow Wilson, GW Bush and Jimmy Carter as examples of that.

  26. @Rafer Janders: @john personna:

    If you find a typo that has already been fixed interesting……

  27. legion says:

    a shot across the bow at Senators who are quite obviously considering running for President in 2016 such as Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, or Ted Cruz

    Yes, that was the first thing to cross my mind about this (after the apostrophe, of course!). One wonders how he’s going to reconcile that statement with any of the people who are likely to be serious contenders for the nomination – including Ryan, Bachmann, and Santorum.

    Of course, he’s also just shot _himself_ in the foot if he had any higher office in mind…

  28. Pinky says:

    @legion:

    Ryan

    That’s the interesting one. McCarthy is in the House leadership.

  29. David M says:

    McCarthy directed his attack at President Obama. He said the president is unwilling to negotiate with Republicans — a skill, McCarthy said, he could have been acquired while running a state.

    McCarthy is flat out lying here. He wouldn’t be any more willing to negotiate with a Democratic President that had been a governor.

    A governor picks a cabinet, has to work with both sides

    McCarthy is conveniently leaving out the GOP’s responsibility for both of those tasks as well.

    can’t print money, has to have a balanced budget.

    Neither of those are actually helpful experience for a potential presidential candidate.

  30. Rob in CT says:

    He will believe this right up until the GOP nominates someone who wasn’t a former governor. Then it will go down the memory hole.

  31. Rafer Janders says:

    @Pinky:

    Yes, that’s exactly what I meant. Any person who has met my conditions can automatically be president, no matter what, and they’re all equally good choices.

    Which is my point, right? When push comes to shove, you DON’T actually want to see “at least 8 years high-level experience. Cabinet, Senate, major office in the House, Governor, major Ambassador, top brass, Supreme Court.”

    You’re completely willing to do without that as long as other criteria are satisfied — otherwise why would you have voted for the guy with only four years experience as governor of a small state rather than the guy with four years experience as a US Senator and four years experience as president? By your own stated criteria, you shouldn’t have, which shows that your own stated criteria aren’t actually that important to you.

  32. Pinky says:

    @Rafer Janders: I guess I’m thinking mostly of the primaries, where you have the luxury of choosing from a wider cast. In November, there’s 2-3 possible choices (in my lifetime, 2) and you have to pick the best. But when I have the option, I’ll go for experience.

  33. Joe says:

    Is this really a shot at Hillary Clinton? What administrative credit does she get as First Lady or Secretary of State?

  34. wr says:

    @Rob in CT: “He will believe this right up until the GOP nominates someone who wasn’t a former governor. Then it will go down the memory hole. ”

    This has nothing to do with Republicans. It’s all about bashing former senator Obama and, more importantly, Hillary Clinton. If the race is between Clinton and, say, Rand Paul then magically the new line will be that no one should be president who hasn’t been governor, unless they’ve worked as an opthamologist.

  35. john personna says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    I can read timestamps.

  36. Rafer Janders says:

    @Pinky:

    Fair enough.

  37. gVOR08 says:

    If we take McCarthy at his word, that the point to electing governors is their skill at reaching across the aisle; then governors of states with single party dominated government are no more qualified than anyone else. There are currently, per Wiki, 37 states dominated by a single party. That leaves 13 currently sitting governors who actually have the experience McCarthy says is critical. Let’s generously assume there are three qualified ex governors who aren’t to old for every sitting governor. That gives us a talent pool of 52 people. Does that strike you as a little thin?

    Even if you count all governors, even resigned half term ex governors of small population, single party states, you still have a pool of only a couple hundred. Some of whom I think are still in jail.

  38. gVOR08 says:

    Many years ago I saw a fascinating article by a well respected writer on history. I want to say Gary Wills, but I’m not sure. He took the latest list of twelve or twenty or whatever presidents judged best by historians. He then examined what they had in common. Two things stood out. One was that most of them had a professional or serious amateur interest in history. The thought was that this gave them training and perspective. The other thing was that most were career politicians. They had come up through local politics, learning to wheel and deal and let everybody have some piece of the pie. That applied to say a Truman, who came up through county politics. It would not include a governor without a long career in lower level politics, like say W. Bush.

  39. Tillman says:

    But governors are, by definition, people who’ve worked in government. Doesn’t that mean they’re slovenly and incompetent compared to their private-sector peers?

    Sorry, I just have a hard time dealing with cognitive dissonance at times.

    Sure, governors are nice for a rule of thumb, but don’t bother making it a legal requirement.

  40. skeeball says:

    Doesn’t matter what anyone thinks. We are in an era of senators ascending to the presidency. Federal campaign accounts can be transferred to presidential campaigns, state level accounts cannot. Senators gave themselves a big advantage on governors when the wrote the rules last time. Every senator who runs for president can start with 8 figures in the bank, governors all have to start with nothing and will get buried.

  41. An Interested Party says:

    My personal views on the subject – I want to see at least 8 years high-level experience. Cabinet, Senate, major office in the House, Governor, major Ambassador, top brass, Supreme Court.

    Oh, so you support a Hillary Clinton candidacy…

  42. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @skeeball:

    We are in an era of senators ascending to the presidency.

    Huh? Since 1976, we have had six Presidents. Only one (Obama) was a Senator before winning the Presidency. Of the remaining five, four were governors.

    One senator becoming President does not an era make.

  43. Pinky says:

    @Tillman: Has McCarthy previously said that all government workers are slovenly and incompetent? Did he call for the governors-only rule to be law?

  44. Pinky says:

    @An Interested Party: As I said to Rafer upthread, this is the experience I look for in a primary presidential candidate. It doesn’t mean that I would necessarily support someone who meets those qualifications. I’m not insane. If I lived in Iowa I wouldn’t believe that Harkin and Grassley are identical. I do consider 8 years in the Senate and 4 years as Secretary of State sufficient experience for the presidency.

  45. JohnMcC says:

    There are a few governors who have found a way to print money. My favorite is Spiro ‘Ted’ Agnew. Gov McDonnell seems to have figured it out too.

  46. jib10 says:

    @Pinky: How is this for qualifications:

    1) Engineer for a multinational corp involved in projects world wide (real world technical experience getting the job done in multiple cultures).

    2) Starts own consultancy to multinationals and gets rich (Entrepreneur!! Self made millionaire!!!)

    3) Started NGO to aid civilian Americans returning home from overseas war zone.

    4) Named head of new agency to help distribute and control scarce foodstuffs during war. Built from scratch in a short time, agency is credited with avoiding rationing during war.

    5) Heads post-war agency to bring famine relief to war zone. Ignores politicians who criticizes agency for distributing food to the ‘wrong people’, says there are no enemies among the hungry.

    Note this agency (like the previous agency) is a technical organizations that must actually do physical work, not a political group that prints a study. It has to collect, transport and distribute real life stuff into areas with destroyed infrastructure. Quite a bit harder than building a web site to sell insurance and the agency was successful.

    6) After next election, is given ‘a minor Cabinet post, with limited and vaguely defined responsibilities’. Energetically rebuilds the agency as a service organization, promoting efficiency in industry and cooperation between labor and biz. Pushed long term mortgages which dramatically increase home ownership.

    Sound like a winner Pinky? Clearly a man who knows how to get things done. Lots of successful economic experience, lots of experience working in foreign countries. IMO, this man is the most qualified person I have found to be president of the US.

    Ladies and gentleman, I give you, Herbert Clark Hoover.

    A president who by the simple metric of ‘are the people better off economically today than 4 years ago’ is the worst president in history. The only president where 4 years after he is elected, GDP is lower than when he started. And not by a small percentage either, way, way lower. This is a man who makes W look like Lincoln.

    Lincoln, FWIW, was one of the least qualified to be president, one short stint as a US rep, rest of the time a trial lawyer.

  47. Pinky says:

    @jib10: The primary system as it exists today has only been around for about 50 years.

  48. john personna says:

    @jib10:

    I think it’s kind of unfair to single out Hoover. He probably was a fine guy, just a fine guy not suited for unforeseen circumstances.

    Was FDR a generic flexible guy? Or did the unforeseen circumstances choose him?

    I really doubt that any “great President” was generically great for whatever came down the road. They were just matches for the time.

  49. jib10 says:

    @john personna: No, its not. These are the facts. One of the most qualified candidates in history was the worst president in history (for some value of worst) and one of the least qualified presidents in history was one of the best.

    I could care less if he is a nice guy, man has a job to do, he needs to be held accountable for his performance. We dont do enough of that anymore, holding leaders accountable. Generals lose wars and get promoted, CEO’s run bizs into the ground while collecting humongous paychecks and then get a huge extra paycheck when they are fired.

    The bigger point is it is useless to talk about qualifications for president. There is no historical data that supports the idea that X makes a good pres and Y makes a bad one.

  50. grumpy realist says:

    So is this McCarthy’s way of sending up a trial balloon for Blago for POTUS?

    (giggles)

  51. jib10 says:

    @Pinky: So in the next primary, lets say only 2 people are running. Person A has an extensive list success and accomplishments in both the private sector and govt and at home and abroad, and person B has just 1 short stint as a US rep and the rest of the time was a trial lawyer, who are you going to vote for?

    You can try to pick a president like you would hire someone but there is no historical evidence that there is qualification list for pres. A list of accomplishments that say ‘this person is more qualified to be pres’. Whatever you come up with for a good pres, there is a counter example of a bad pres with the exact same quals.

  52. john personna says:

    @jib10:

    You have more faith in the flexibility of the human mind than I.

    I really don’t think there are that many people, and certainly not politicians who have dedicated themselves to a course, who can respond as blank slates to new crises.

    Which is how democracy works in the long run. You don’t need to wait for Bush/Cheney to figure out how badly they f’d up Iraq/Iran/Afghanistan. You just get rid of them and find someone else.

  53. rudderpedals says:

    @john personna: Hoover stuck way, way too long with voluntary measures – the sorts of private solutions avoiding government at all costs that remains stylish with the GOP today – when his own eyes were telling him it wasn’t working, and then spent the next 20 years telling everyone why FDR was wrong. A brilliant engineering mind damaged by his utter devotion to a utopian ideal of a capitalism of the self enlightened. He does deserve singling out.

  54. Tillman says:

    @Pinky: …did I say McCarthy said any of that? I’m not attacking the dude, I’m just expressing a meme I’ve heard from right-wing talk radio before. The pool of Republican candidates, if the Tea Party is any indication, are increasingly going to subscribe to that meme.

    And the “only governors for president” as a legal requirement being a bad idea was my take on the whole thing. Dude’s free to express his opinion, hell it can even become a widely-held tradition (like judging presidents by the first 100 days of their first term or vice presidents being functionally useless), I’d just prefer it not be a legal requirement for the office. Don’t think anyone said it should be.

  55. john personna says:

    @rudderpedals:

    Well, look at it this way, why was Carter rejected? Was it because he was not a capable man, or because his nature was just not suited to an energy blockade?

  56. SC_Birdflyte says:

    While Hoover certainly had a disastrous 4 years as President, by comparison to James Buchanan, he doesn’t look so bad. And Buchanan was highly experienced in national politics, yet the country (literally) blew up on his watch.

  57. Tony W says:

    Sounds like a solution in need of a problem.

  58. jib10 says:

    @john personna: I dont get your point because you seem to be arguing with me while agreeing with me.

    My point is that talking about qualifications is a waste of time. What matters is the job they do and it is really hard to determine how that will go before hand. Once they fail, fire them and move on.

  59. jib10 says:

    @SC_Birdflyte: Very true which is what I meant by “for some value of worst”.

    But I think we tend to underestimate how bad the great depression was. It is because today, if your unemployed, you can get unemployment, you can get food stamps, you can get help. If the bank where you have your money deposited goes out of biz, you get your money back. All of that is because of the New Deal. When the depression hit, there was no safety net, no unemployment, no food stamps. Unemployment hit 25% which is a crazy high number. Even if your keep your job, there was massive bank failures. And if your bank failed, you lost all your money. People were totally wiped out. Not just people who lived above their means but people who did everything right, saved and never borrowed, never used credit. They too lost everything when the banks failed

  60. rudderpedals says:

    @john personna: I think Carter was rejected because the Reagan campaign (through Casey) arranged for the Iranians to hold the hostages through inauguration and hostage fixation afflicted the admin and the press while Volcker cut the head off of the economy to tame the 18-20% interest rates resulting (IMO) from the serial oil crises.. Nightline IIRC got its start with the Iranian embassy attack.

  61. JohnMcC says:

    @jib10: It is a silly discussion because the real ‘qualifications’ for the office are to be a person who can be nominated by one of the two major parties. But just because I have this inner pedant, I feel like it’s worth mentioning that FDR’s actual platform in ’32 and again in ’36 were pretty much a conservative document. Balance the budget, smaller gov’t, lower taxes. And when the Depression seemed to be lifting in ’37, the administration tried it to their sorrow.

    FDR’s advantage over the preceeding administration is that he had the sense to recognize an emergency and to simply throw stuff at the problems until something seemed to work. And then to do more of it.

    I guess that’s not disagreeing with what y’all have been saying. But it seemed like it needed mentioning.

  62. Lenoxus says:

    As far as I’m concerned, winning an actual national election, and jumping through the attendant party-nomination hoops, should obviously be “qualification” enough.

    Okay, they should be human, at least old enough to vote, and probably a citizen of the USA, but that’s it. It just seems maximally… American, you know?