When Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and former California Gov. Jerry Brown outlasted several other contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, they confirmed two things. First, it pays for candidates to talk about "new ideas," even when they have none. Second, governors have once again become major players in presidential politics.
The latter point is just as significant as the first. In every election between 1924 and 1956, one or both major parties chose a presidential nominee who had served as governor. But from 1960 to 1972, the major parties turned to the likes of Kennedy, Johnson, Goldwater, Nixon, Humphrey, and McGovern—all sons of Capitol Hill, and not a governor among them.
Political analysts observed that the Senate had replaced the state capital as the nursery of presidential ambitions. In the old days, a Franklin Roosevelt or a Thomas Dewey could win the nomination because his gubernatorial job kept him in touch with the "kingmakers"—the legendary bosses who saw the world from between the brim of a Fedora and the tip of a cigar.
In the 1960s, however, reporters who saw life through a camera viewfinder ruled presidential politics. Senators had easy access to the elite Washington press corps, while most governors could only reach the small-fry and washouts assigned to the backwater beat of the state-house. And during the early days of Camelot, senators could claim credit for new social programs and pontificate about foreign affairs, while governors were stuck with explaining bond issues and tax increases.
In the mid-1970s, things started to change again. Watergate, Vietnam, and the failure of the Great Society spoiled Washington's image. Senators kept getting press attention, but more of it was hostile: Compare the cover-up of John Kennedy's assignations with the ever-deeper excavations of Edward Kennedy's personal life. (The Senate had lost its luster but not its lusters.)
The percentage of Americans reporting "a great deal of confidence" in Congress plunged from 21 percent in 1972 to 9 percent in 1976. Senators were heading into political oil slicks: Their reelection rate had topped 86 percent between 1962 and 1970, but it dropped to 74 percent between 1972 and 1980.
Governors, meanwhile, saw an increase in their reelection rates in the same period, from 70 percent to 75 percent. The 1976 presidential election reflected this reversal of fortunes. Several big-name senators—including Frank Church and Henry Jackson—sought the Democratic nomination, yet they were all outrun and outgrinned by an obscure former governor of Georgia. And on the Republican side, a former governor of California came within a Brylcreemed hair of taking the crown from President Gerald Ford.
Former Gov. Reagan went on to win the next two elections. The rise in gubernatorial stock continued in 1988 when the Democrats chose Michael Dukakis, the first sitting governor to win a presidential nomination in 36 years. And in state elections between 1982 and 1990, the gubernatorial reelection rate rose again, to 80 percent. (House and Senate rates increased as well.)
Several trends combined to strengthen the governors. One was the monstrous increase in the size and reach of state governments. Since 1960, real per-capita state spending and the number of state employees have both more than doubled. Indeed, since the early 1970s, state governments have employed more civilians than the federal government. Among other things, these numerous state employees have been busy writing and enforcing regulations that cover many aspects of business and everyday life.
Through their authority to appoint officials and veto items in appropriation bills, governors generally wield a good deal of control over the states' burgeoning power. Those people who stand to gain or lose from state action—a rather large group—thus find it prudent to stay on a governor's good side.
Early in the 1988 race, Michael Dukakis gained a decisive fund-raising advantage over his rivals by getting contributions from corporate executives in Massachusetts. Sens. Paul Simon and Albert Gore, who each cast only a single vote in a 100-member body, lacked the financial leverage that a sitting governor could exercise.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the expansion of state government provided governors with numerous occasions to tout their "innovative policies," a.k.a. spending programs. Most readers have heard of Dukakis's Employment and Training program, along with other elements of the "Massachusetts Miracle." Dukakis's accomplishments proved as bogus as they were costly—yet they did generate a great deal of favorable publicity in the 1988 campaign.
Less well-known is that Ronald Reagan also campaigned on his gubernatorial spending initiatives. A 1980 campaign document noted that, as governor, Reagan "expanded state aid to education at all levels, from elementary schools to the state universities; increased the number of state scholarships awarded by over 500%, and the amount of state loans and scholarships by 915%."
Governors now have greater opportunities to win exposure and make political contacts beyond their states' borders. Many states now run overseas offices and sponsor foreign-trade missions, which governors often lead. In the autobiography circulated in his 1976 campaign, Jimmy Carter recalled: "During the last two years of my term, we made personal and official visits to ten other nations. In each instance, our goal was to promote friendship and trade, and to learn as much as possible about our hosts." In fact, his main goal was to pad the otherwise-vacant "international experience" line on his presidential résumé.
A governor can also amass mileage within the United States. Bill Clinton gained national prominence by heading the National Governors' Association task force on educational goals. And by winning the helm of the Democratic Leadership Council, he established himself as his party's leading quasi-moderate. (Note: In light of Clinton's amazing "flexibility," all adjectives applied to him should start with the prefix quasi.)
Changing terms of office also helped spread Potomac Fever to a number of state capitals. In 1960, 15 states elected governors to two-year terms. Their governors faced the unappealing prospect of giving up their offices if they wanted to run for president. Since then, 12 of these states have switched to four-year terms—and except for North Dakota, all have opted to hold elections in nonpresidential years, freeing their chief executives to seek the White House. Massachusetts changed in 1966, when Michael Dukakis was still a hungry state legislator. The most recent switch came in 1986—in Arkansas.
Yet for all their newfound assets, governors still have considerable disadvantages in presidential campaigns. Heading a state government is a demanding job that may leave its occupant with little time and energy for the campaign trail. Carter and Reagan both departed office in 1974, so they had the luxury of becoming full-time candidates. Conversely, Mario Cuomo was probably not dissembling last December when he said New York's budget woes precluded him from entering the primaries. Even a free-spending statist such as Cuomo has a tough time keeping up with the orders for pork coming from New York's greedy and corrupt legislature.
Governors are magnets for blame as well as credit. Whereas lawmakers can dodge accountability for just about anything, governors rise or fall with their states' fortunes, whether or not they are actually responsible. Dukakis took the bows for the good economic times that Massachusetts enjoyed in the 1980s—even though the boom stemmed from tax cuts that he had opposed. When the state crashed after the 1988 election, the last embers of his political career were extinguished—even though he was only one of many culprits.
Fiscal reality is catching up with the states, so governors in the 1990s may lose the political benefits that accompanied the expansion of state government. Some, however, are turning austerity to their advantage. William Weld, who succeeded Dukakis, responded to the state's fiscal crisis with budget cuts instead of tax hikes, and he aims to restructure the state's government through initiatives such as privatization and school choice. If he succeeds, he may well position himself as a new kind of presidential contender: a governor who achieves prominence by making government better instead of bigger.
John J. Pitney Jr. is assistant professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, Claremont, California.