Focusing on 2016, GOP governors overlook their own states

July 7, 2015
Wisconsin Governor and potential Republican 2016 U.S. presidential candidate Scott Walker greets supporters at a rally for Congressman Rod Blum (R-IA) in Cedar Rapids

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker at a rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, April 24, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Young

Jeb Bush offered a dig at President Barack Obama when he entered the Republican presidential nomination race last month. “As our whole nation has learned since 2008,” the former Florida governor said, “‘executive experience’ is another term for preparation, and there’s no substitute for that.” If what we really want in a president is executive experience, we could just elect Donald Trump and be done with it. Problems with Congress? President Trump could just tell them, “You’re fired!”

American voters have often demonstrated a preference for governors over senators when they choose a president. Before Obama, the last senator to win the White House was John F. Kennedy — nearly 50 years earlier.  In the interim, former Governors Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush all won.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush holds a press conference with Sen. Chuck Grassley

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush holds a press conference in Iowa City, Iowa, May 16, 2015. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

Governors have actually run something. All senators do is make speeches and vote. “We’ve had enough of talkers,” Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal said when he entered the GOP race. “It is time for a doer.”

These days, however, governors who run for president have to prove their ideological purity. Republican primary voters demand it. Tea Party conservatives and the religious right have enormous influence in Republican primaries and caucuses.

Their favorites do not necessarily win the nomination, however. Senator John McCain and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney were not favorites of the right. But the nominee has to be acceptable to hard-line conservatives.

Several governors who are running or likely to run have respectable problem-solving records in their states but are not considered pure enough ideologically: Bush, Ohio Governor John Kasich, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former New York Governor George Pataki. All are having trouble gaining support in polls of Republican primary voters. They’ve made too many compromises. Bush supports immigration reform, which is popular in Florida but anathema to conservatives. Kasich committed the sin of accepting Medicaid expansion under Obamacare. Christie praised Obama for coming to New Jersey’s rescue after Hurricane Sandy. He even hugged him.

Governor of Wisconsin and potential U.S. Presidential candidate Scott Walker refers to the book "Jesus Calling" at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition's forum in Waukee

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker refers to the book “Jesus Calling” at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition’s forum in Waukee, Iowa, April 25, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Young

But at the onset of the 2016 election, we’re seeing Jindal and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker take rigid right-wing positions to win over out-of-state conservatives. Even if it creates problems in their own states. Both Wisconsin and Louisiana are now facing serious budget shortfalls largely because their governors refuse to increase taxes or fees to pay for infrastructure repairs and education. Neither governor can tout impressive economic gains for his state. But both boast about their tax cuts. And both have seen their job approval ratings at home tumble.

Jindal won acclaim for his deft handling of the BP oil spill in 2010. Since then, however, he has moved steadily to the right. He has antagonized business by taking hard-line positions against same-sex marriage and supporting the flying of the Confederate battle flag. In his announcement speech, Jindal put ideological purity over pragmatism by declaring, “Republicans must stop being afraid to lose.”

Wisconsin has a strong progressive tradition. So Walker shied away from hard-line conservative positions when he ran for governor. Now he’s facing a revolt among his fellow Republicans in the state legislature. They favor investments to repair the state’s crumbling roads and bridges and to sustain Wisconsin’s commitment to first-rate public universities. Walker refuses to raise taxes. He is demanding cuts in education spending and has picked a fight with university professors.

Fighting is Walker’s thing. He criticized senators when he said, “Some want you to think they fight, but speeches aren’t fighting or winning.” Walker is leading in Iowa polling right now because he touts his record as a fighter — and a winner. He took on labor unions and won. He won again when Democrats forced him into a recall election.

FILE PHOTO OF FORMER U.S PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN.

President Ronald Reagan in Washington, October 19, 1983. REUTERS/Mal Langsdon

Partisans like a fighter. But do voters want to see more fighting in Washington, or do they want to see more problem solving? Governors have traditionally won the presidency because they can boast a record of problem solving, which usually involves a willingness to compromise.

For conservatives, the model is Ronald Reagan — a governor who was also a hero to ideological activists. Reagan could give a fiery speech blasting taxes on Monday, then sign a deal that raised taxes on Tuesday, then give the same fiery speech blasting taxes on Wednesday.

It worked for a simple reason: He believed every word he said. And the tax hikes?  That was just politics — a compromise he had to make to keep his agenda on track.

It was a neat trick. And it required the skills, not just of a governor, but also of a professional actor.

5 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Perhaps one or the other would be better. However about the worst choice in my view is another politician of any stripe. Americans need a system that will allow the people to select their candidates, not a bunch of party cheerleaders or failed minds. We also need a neither entry on the ballot. To keep mediocity from being constantly reelected. Sorta like a democracy.

Posted by EyeForget | Report as abusive

I beg your pardon, but what taxes are you referring to when you say he signed a bill to raise taxes? Reagan led an amazing tax reform. He lowered taxes across the board and reduced the number of tax brackets. It’s been the only true simplification of the tax code in my lifetime. He believed in a smaller federal government, unlike the majority of politicians these days.
His policies created an environment of entrepreneurship that led to decades of technological advancement and growth.
Governors do make better presidents, although there are always exceptions (Carter)

Posted by beofaction | Report as abusive

Between Walker and Jindal, Walker is likely the best candidate for the GOP. Jindal, although dumb, is a different kind of dumb. If he doesn’t see the racism of the GOP he has a serious reality block. Now, Walker is dumb like Reagan in that he doesn’t know anything except the act. Reagan was an actor and he had many people absolutely fooled (the original TV generation was the old Reagan constituency). Unfortunately Walker is not that good of an actor and the stupid will become apparent when he can’t get someone to feed him the answer. In a debate he will be exposed.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Two nobodies. Jindal and Walker couldn’t carry their own states next year. Worse than Paul Ryan and his 20 point loss in his home state.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Reagan was a record deficit spender and arms dealer to Iran. Very clumsy and over-rated figure. Worst president in American history, next to GW Bush.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive