James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

Civil War 2.0 may turn governors into presidents

February 24, 2011

Six men with the rank of general during the Civil War went on to become  president of the United States. But a new kind of union battle — one being fought in places like Trenton and Madison and Columbus and Indianapolis — may be forging the next generation of leaders who will ascend to the White House. How state governors fare as commanders in this escalating conflict with Big Government Labor may determine who makes it all the way and who falls short.

For the most part, the political backlash against public unions is happening in the states. That’s where employee benefits are creating long-term budget problems. Total unfunded pension and healthcare liabilities could be as much as $3.5 trillion.

Savvy governors can thrust an issue like public sector compensation into the national consciousness and create a political niche for themselves.  And American voters like to promote state bosses  to national CEO. President Barack Obama was never a governor, but two-term predecessors George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan all were. The last sitting U.S. senator before Obama to go directly to the White House was John Kennedy in 1961.

In New Jersey, Chris Christie’s efforts at austerity have made him a leading 2016 GOP contender with many Republican activists still hoping he’ll change his mind and make a run against Obama next year. Wisconsin Republican Scott Walker has burst into national prominence by trying to strip public unions of some bargaining rights. And in liberal New York, Democrat Andrew Cuomo’s adversarial approach to labor might help his centrist appeal should he cast an eye on the Oval Office.

Among Republican activists, it’s almost impossible to be too tough on unions. That’s where the risk of overreach starts cropping up. Indiana’s Mitch Daniels, a possible 2012 candidate, already has killed collective bargaining for state workers. Yet conservatives balk because he won’t prohibit making union membership a condition for employment. Daniels sees that as a needless fight with organized labor, whose influence is already waning. As Josh Barro of the Manhattan Institute notes on his blog:

As of 2010, only 8.2 percent of private-sector workers in Indiana were members of unions. That’s a bit above the national average of 6.9 percent, owing to the state’s industrial base, but it’s also falling faster than in most states: down 37 percent in the last decade, compared to 22 percent nationally. Private firms don’t appear to fear excessive union power in Indiana; indeed, the state has had significant success in drawing non-union Japanese auto factories.

The political subtleties sometimes get lost in the heat of battle. Some in the Tea Party are bashing Christie for increasing the state’s spending in his newly announced budget. But the governor is trying to negotiate a deal with Democrats to go easier in exchange for sweeping pension reform. And if Walker should settle for something less than total surrender or go too far by firing workers, his sudden ascent could come to a halt.

The fight against public unions and for fiscal responsibility may look like to create a clear path to the presidency for now. But governors going down that road will need to beware of the many political mines strewn along the way. Still, a future American president may have his or her mettle tested in this new civil war.

Comments

Mr. P: With due respect to a Jeopardy champ, I can’t think of any Civil War general aside from U.S. Grant who was elected president. Who were the other five?

P.S. Stand-up column, as usual.

Posted by Elektrobahn | Report as abusive
 

In addition to Grant, Hayes, Garfield and Benjamin Harrison were all Union generals who saw combat.Chester Arthur commanded a desk, but held the rank of general in the New York militia. Cleveland didn’t serve and McKinley rose from private to major. Who’s the sixth? Good column though. There’s a reason great presidents DON’T come from the US Senate.

Posted by RCBaker | Report as abusive
 

“The rank of general” may be misleading. Certainly in the vernacular that includes all general officers regardless of how many stars. Technically none of the Union’s general officers in the Civil War were full generals. Grant was a lieutenant general by the time of Appomattox.

Hayes was a brigadier general brevet major general); Garfield was a major general. Chester Arthur held a political appointment that came with the rank of brigadier general.
Benjamin Harrison was a brigadier general.

The big surprise to me is Andrew Johnson, who as military governor of Tennessee in 1862 held the rank of brigadier general. I had not been aware of that.

Grover Cleveland paid another man to fill his slot in the draft, and William McKinley never made it to general rank. All subsequent presidents were either too young to serve during the war or not born yet.

Posted by McGehee | Report as abusive
 

Other Civil War Generals were:

James Garfield- Major General
Rutherford B. Hayes- Major General
Benjamin Harrison- Brig. General
Andrew Johnson- Brig. General
Chester A. Arthur- Brig. General

Brig. Generals were mainly political appointees, but held the rank of General nonetheless.

Posted by publius1787 | Report as abusive
 

Ulysses S. Grant, Andrew Johnson, Benjamin Harrison, Rutherford Hayes, and Chester Arthur were all presidents who were civil war generals.

Posted by Sykora4417 | Report as abusive
 

This is not new news. Former governors have been running the oval office for a while now. George H. W. Bush only won because he rode Reagan’s curtails.

Posted by TheUSA | Report as abusive
 

Governors have a good shot, especially if they show up with some fiscal responsibility credentials. Obama’s budget was a sad joke. His cuts always suffer in an order of magnitude compared to new spending. As O sides with unions against taxpayers, my hope is the historic distrust of government will be rekindled and sweep these amatuers away.

Posted by dedred1960 | Report as abusive
 

Mr. Pethokoukis, the fact that you take at face value the right-wing lie that unions are a major factor in state budget shortfalls makes your “analysis” worthless.

You’re also ignoring the fact that polling both in Wisconsin and nationwide shows that Scott Walker’s attempt union-busting is a political loser. He’s not just going to be a one-term governor, it looks likely that he’ll be a one-year governor, since that’s how long Wisconsin voters have to wait to stage a recall election.

Posted by Cal13 | Report as abusive
 

Several years ago I did a study of the Civil War for a childrens’ education site, kidport.com. I learned a lot about how economics, politics and human nature can come together in both good and bad ways. You didn’t mention that the Civil War created another President. He was President Jefferson Davis. Just because someone is on what they think is the path to presidency, doesn’t mean they are on the right path. Bryan Knysh, editor Kidport.com.

Posted by bknysh | Report as abusive
 

Cal13, even if they can’t begin collecting signatures yet, whoever wants to recall Gov. Walker can certainly get started organizing. Has that happened?

At all?

Posted by McGehee | Report as abusive
 

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