Look back into the history of the past century, and one U.S. political-cultural truth is eminently clear: Governors win the presidency.
Just consider the following: George W. Bush: Governor of Texas. Bill Clinton: Governor of Arkansas. Ronald Reagan, California; Jimmy Carter, Georgia; Franklin Roosevelt, New York; Calvin Coolidge, Massachusetts; Warren G. Harding (Lt. Governor of Ohio before serving as a U.S. Senator but missing over two thirds of the roll-call votes during his tenure and hence leaving little paper trail); Woodrow Wilson (New Jersey); William Howard Taft (governor-general of the Philippines); Theodore Roosevelt (New York). Governors win, and when it’s a governor running against a U.S. senator or even vice president or president, the governor wins.
Senators who become president are those who run against other senators or ascend to the presidency after serving as vice president when a sitting president dies in office. The last senator to win the presidency without being the incumbent was John F. Kennedy in 1960, and it’s almost a certainty that the close race against Richard Nixon — a former senator and vice president, not a governor — was stolen by pols in Illinois and Texas.
So, when we think about whom any party should nominate for president, it’s always best to go after a governor.
The reasons governors beat national politicians are probably fairly simple. They have accomplishments they can cite, have served as CEO of a large government organization (as the U.S. presidency is), and, most importantly, they don’t have a voting record on important and controversial national issues.
Senators, by contrast, don’t have the individual political-administrative accomplishments to which to point, have records dotted with controversial and polarizing votes, and typically have made a lot of enemies on the national level.
It’s a certainty that the Democrats will reject my advice and run a senator this time, either Clinton or Obama, most likely, with Sen. Edwards also running fairly strong. This is in perfect accord with the statist, big-government nature of that party.
On the Republican side, the top-tier candidates are more varied. Among them are a Senator, McCain (although he’s just barely hanging on at this point, with New Hampshire his only hope for renewal); a former mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani; and a governor, Mitt Romney, who would surely be the odds-on favorite if he were not a Mormon but who cannot energize the Republicans’ crucial voting bloc, evangelical Christians, unless there is no other viable alternative. Also likely to join the candidates for nomination is actor and former Senator Fred Thompson.
So, given that the best choice is a governor and Romney probably isn’t it, whom should the Republicans nominate, from a purely practical, historically astute perspective?
Before last weekend’s Iowa straw poll I was telling associates that among the current candidates the best choice for the Republicans would be Mike Huckabee. A former Baptist minister who served two terms as governor of Arkansas, a state long controlled by Democrats, where he nonetheless enjoyed high approval ratings, Huckabee is hardly more obscure than Bill Clinton was in 1991 (unless you think Clinton’s tenure as leader of the National Governor’s Association made him world-famous). His appeal to evangelicals is a given.
Huckabee has sometimes been criticized from the right for not being sufficiently anti-tax and not strongly enough opposed to illegal immigration, but those are positions on which he will no doubt continually move to the right, and he did cut numerous tax rates as governor of Arkansas. (The cuts resulted in rising revenues and a billion dollar surplus, in true supply-side fashion.) Plus, it’s not as if most of the other Republican candidates have spotless low-tax and immigration-enforcement records.
In policy terms, Huckabee’s no Ron Paul, to be sure, but from a practical standpoint the Arkansas governor would certainly seem to fit the bill. (Paul should run for governor of Texas before running for president, but he’d be too old by the next go-round for the presidency thereafter. Alas.)
Given all these factors, from a tactical perspective Huckabee has appeal as a prospective presidential candidate, though most Republicans would probably welcome the entry into the race of some other prominent Republican governor. (Former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson was hopeless because of his association with the currently unpopular George W. Bush administration.) Failing that, it would seem that they could do a good deal worse than to settle for Huckabee.
After his strong, second-place finish in last week’s Iowa Straw Poll, Republicans should take a good luck at Huckabee. Unless another Christian, low-tax governor (not named Bush) enters the race unexpectedly, Huckabee actually gives them the best chance of winning in 2008, if history is any guide.
And you may rest assured, it is.
– S. T. Karnick maintains the American Culture website, stkarnick.com.