One thing about Asa Hutchinson – he’ll never be president. His name starts with the wrong three letters. Not “A-s-a,” but “G-o-v.”
It wasn’t long ago that being governor was the best route to becoming president. From 1976 to 2008, governors – Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush – won seven of eight elections and held the nation’s highest office 28 of 32 years. Being senator was a ticket only to being vice president – Walter Mondale, Dan Quayle, Al Gore.
That appears to have begun changing in 2008, when President Obama was elected president after a Senate career that was too brief to include any noteworthy accomplishments or leave many battle scars. His vice president, Joe Biden, also is a former senator, though a veteran one.
This election cycle has come down to two senators among the Democrats, former Sen. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Two of the three leading Republicans, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, are also senators, while Donald Trump has never held elective office.
The governors are getting killed. Of the nine who started on the Republican side, only one, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, remains, and he’s a long shot. The two Democratic governors, Martin O’Malley and Lincoln Chaffee (also a senator), ran short, forgettable campaigns. An early February poll by Talk Business & Politics and Hendrix College found the three governors then remaining in the race were polling only 6 percent in Arkansas. Two, totaling 2 percent, have since dropped out.
For now, being governor is a dead-end job, while being senator is a potential ticket to the White House. What changed? The country’s political climate.
During the recent past, Americans have looked for a competent elected official from outside Washington to be president, and governors fit the description well. They have executive experience in jobs that look almost presidential – particular Reagan, who as California’s governor led a state that, if it were a country, today would have the world’s eighth largest economy.
This election cycle, being competent isn’t in vogue, and being governor is not outsider enough. In their day-to-day jobs, governors must make government function, and that’s a messy process. They must make tough, compromising decisions – such as whether to accept federal money for expanded Medicaid services, as Hutchinson and Kasich have done. They are totally accountable for what happens in their states while dealing with a federal system over which they have no control. They must work with members of the other party. They must be realistic, practical and pragmatic. They must balance budgets.
In other words, they develop records that are easy to attack in a presidential race.
Senators don’t have to deal with any of that stuff any more. They know nothing is going to get done in Washington anyway, so they don’t have to try. They don’t have to balance budgets because deficits can always be passed to tomorrow’s voters. They can take polarizing positions and throw red meat to their party’s bases. While Hutchinson and Kasich accepted Medicaid money to deal with problems in health care they didn’t cause, Cruz and Rubio can vote repeatedly to repeal Obamacare without offering a real replacement. And while Hutchinson and Kasich are serving as their state’s one governor, senators are one of 100. They can make speeches, avoid compromises, and stay away from tough votes. There’s always somebody convenient to blame.
This is how two of the three leading contenders for president on the Republican side are first-term senators with few constructive accomplishments in Washington, while the third, Trump, hasn’t done anything in politics. He can campaign as the rich businessman who can fix everything because he hasn’t had to run a government, where easy fixes are rare. The Democrats are choosing between Clinton, who’s trying to run on competence, and a socialist senator, Sanders, who’s running not on what can be done, but on what he thinks should be done.
Governors have to focus on both – what should be done, and what can be done. Those who succeed in both respects might make good presidents. They just can’t get elected right now.