As I was lunching with a few conservative political types earlier this week, the subject turned, as it does, to the 2016 field. When the name of a highly regarded former governor came up, the judgment was unequivocal: “He’s just so . . . boring.” That was not intended as an endorsement.
It should be.
The most boring president of the modern era probably was Dwight Eisenhower, whose administration was marked by relative peace, prosperity, and confidence in the effectiveness and integrity of our institutions. The most boring president ever surely was Calvin Coolidge, who pinched pennies and kept at his plow, more or less leaving the country free to go about its own business, which turned out to be an excellent economic program. Our most exciting recent presidents? John Kennedy, who was privately corrupt and publicly inept; Richard Nixon, who was privately corrupt and publicly corrupt; Bill Clinton, who combined the worst features of Kennedy and Nixon, adding a distasteful dose of sanctimony to the mix.
What greeted Barack Obama during his ascent was excitement that bled into reverence — it is easy to forget, with the demigod in his now diminished state, that his admirers were literally singing hymns to him. Exciting, in the same way that a head-on collision in a speeding Cadillac is exciting — it’s a shame J. G. Ballard, the poet laureate of car crashes, was not around to write about this wreck.
There are two broad categories of Republicans who are running for president in 2016: senators and governors. Senator Rand Paul is the man with the views closest to my own, but I have a strong bias in favor of governors. The Senate, particularly if you are in the minority, is a place to make speeches, to think big thoughts and construct grand philosophies — which, in anything but the smallest of doses, constitutes vice. Talk to a senator from any party or political tendency, and you can count on an interesting conversation. Governors? Dead boring. Even the colorful ones, such as Texas’s Rick Perry: Get Governor Perry started on the specifics of tort reform or his economic-development programs, and his new glasses start to make sense: He may have some big ideas about the Tenth Amendment, but his days are filled with governor stuff: gloriously boring governor stuff.
The Republican party is a more ideologically demanding party than is its opposite number, which is generally a happy thing — philosophy should trump narrow interest-group calculation — but the downside of that is that in the presidential primaries governors are at an inherent disadvantage vis-à-vis senators and other legislators. A senator, especially a senator in the minority, never has to compromise; under Harry Reid’s management, Republican senators really can’t do very much, so they don’t do very much — other than make exciting speeches. There’s no upside to doing anything else. Governors, on the other hand, have to do things — they have to run their states. Some of them, like Scott Walker of Wisconsin, have to work with Democrat-dominated states and electorates that do not vote very much like Texans or Oklahomans. When something exciting happens to a governor, it’s generally bad news. The best executive operations are like the best technology: When it’s working right, you hardly even know that it’s there.
I myself don’t have a 2016 candidate, but I’ll say this: I don’t want an exciting one. I don’t need to be inspired and don’t desire to be awed or ruled. I want what has been missing these past years: a responsible, sober, honest, predictable federal government, one that recognizes its own limits — constitutional and epistemic — and under which the president is not a hero but a steward.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent and the author of The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome.