Patterns in Presidential Politics
By Elvin Lim
As the race for the Republican nomination warms up, it is too early to tell who would head the party’s ticket next Fall. But there is more to understanding politics than predicting the horse races, and for those ready to look, there are already patterns emerging from the available field of potential candidates.
First, the next Republican nominee is not likely to come from the other end of Pennsylvania avenue. With the announcement of Senator John Thune (SD) that he would not be running, there are no more sitting Senators vying for the Republican nomination. There is only one former Senator thinking of running, Rick Santorum (PA); but he is not a serious contender. There is one sitting member of the House Ron Paul (TX) and one former member, Newt Gingrich (GA), who are likely run, but neither of them are inspiring much confidence.
Second, the next nominee is likely to have spent some time in a Governor’s Mansion. The buzz, if there is any, revolves almost entirely on the Governors and former Governors. Among those still in office are Haley Barbour of (MS), Mitch Daniels (IN), and Rick Perry (TX). Even more exciting are the names of former Governors Mike Huckabee (AR), John Huntsman (UT), Sarah Palin (AL), Tim Pawlenty (MN), and Mitt Romney (MA), the current frontrunner.
What do these two patterns tell us? First, the Founders’ aim to separate the legislative and executive functions has succeeded, perhaps even beyond their intent. Whereas there was a time when most Senators looked into the mirror and privately hailed the impending Chief, this is no more. It is true that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama once sought the presidency from the chambers of the Senate, but they were had spent only 8 and 6 years there, not like John Kerry, who lost the race to another Governor in part because of the record of his votes. Bush was able to paint Kerry as a flip-flopper only because the latter had to explain his vote authorizing the president to use force in Iraq (a problem which had also compromised Clinton’s candidacy.)
The point then, is that Americans today believe that legislators deliberate. They write prose, as was said of Clinton. But executives, we have come to believe, are deciders. And they are also expected to inspire us with poetry. This Obama was able to do in 2008, and so he was an exception to the line of former Governors — Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush — who had preceded him in the White House. Witness the low approval ratings of Congress as an institution, in contrast to the personal popularity of any president, even deep into his first term. In an age of impatience, we do not have time for the lethargy of Congress (or the Courts), but we wait with abated breath for the energy of the executive.
Second, that Governors’ Mansions are better breeding grounds for a future president than either House of Congress tells a systemic story about America’s (or at least Republican America’s) increasing distrust of Washington, DC. The capital is not so much a symbol of a nation as it is a despised metropole of an empire, as distant from the people as it is the opposite of their virtue. And this is why Governors are able to speak the appealing language of the “outsider” untainted by beltway politics, and it points to why Haley Barbour, who has strong ties to former colleagues at K Street, may have less of a competitive advantage than would say, a Tim Pawlenty.
It is no wonder then, that Republican operatives are still waiting for a candidate who would be a breath of fresh from far far away in some state capital, who has not (yet) spent a lifetime in politics and without a record of having taken positions on various political issues. If you’re now thinking that Republicans are basically looking for their Obama, then that too is my point, as it is my warning. For even Democrats have wondered in the last year if a rookie’s inspiration was worth its price in inexperience. This is American politics writ large, bi-partisan, and uncompromising in the 21st century, for better and, though it is seldom emphasized, also for worse.
Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears here each week.