Where Presidents Come From


Governors, mostly.

We go through this every four years, and I certainly was taken by surprise in 2008 when both parties nominated senators.

This year, so far, it’s all Senators and a former Senator and Secretary of State.  (More on that later.)  Rubio, Cruz, and Paul are all first-term Senators, and given our recent experience with a first-term Senator-as-President, people are understandably leery of electing another one.

If Obama were the only point of reference, I might agree with those who say the comparison is a false one, but the fact is, we don’t have a great record with first-term Senators.  Starting after the Civil War, we have Benjamin Harrison, Warren Harding, and John Kennedy.  Those were the only Presidents elected either directly from the Senate or with the Senate as their only national experience, and they were all first-termers.  (James Garfield was elected from the House, but he really didn’t get much of a chance.)  None of them left much of a record, although it’s possible that two of them, if they hadn’t died in office, might have been re-elected for all that.

Harrison was a one-termer, losing his 1892 rematch with Grover Cleveland.  Harrison had a terrible economy working against him, but then as now, Presidents got the blame or credit for that, probably too much of either.  It wasn’t even a sure thing that Harrison would be renominated, although the obvious candidate, James Blaine, was too ill to run.  True, the executive hadn’t grown to its current, gargantuan proportions, but it was growing into its own, post-Civil War, and was coming to be seen as more important than it had been, with civil service reform a major, multi-decade issue.

Harding’s tenure is mostly remembered for the Teapot Dome scandal, and indeed, his administration appears to have rivaled Grant’s for corruption, although like Grant, Harding hired poorly, rather than to have been on the take himself.  Richard Epstein, about 10 minutes in on this EconTalk podcast, tries to make the case for Harding’s administration, and certainly compared to the frenetic Wilson, he made good on his promise of a “return to normalcy.”  It’s possible a reassessment is in order.  But part of governing is hiring and management, and on that score Harding seems to have failed (with the exception of Mellon at Treasury, which is no small thing).

Kennedy has been canonized by his untimely death, but the fact is the golden haze is mostly misplaced.   He had relatively few domestic achievements, and repeatedly got rolled by Khrushchev – first at the summit, then in Berlin, and finally with the Cuban Missile Crisis.  He made up for it by getting us into Vietnam.

Obama’s been effective in getting some things past, but he’s had to make full use (and then some) of the powers granted the executive branch, and his only real legislative achievement came in large part because of a well-timed prosecution of Ted Stevens, and a variety of found ballots in Minnesota, which conspired to give him 60 votes in the Senate.  A Republican with real coattails in 2016 might pick up a couple of Senate seats, but given the map, is quite unlikely to get such a filibuster-proof majority to work with (although there’s always the chance that a Republican majority leader might follow the Democrat tradition and change the rules to suit his needs).

Of those who ended up President by succession, rather than election, two were legislators first, Truman and Lyndon Johnson.  We tend to think highly of Truman in retrospect, and much of that is based on foreign, rather than domestic policy.  Johnson, while a train wreck in foreign policy, and responsible for a vast expansion of the welfare and regulatory states (which is responsible for much of our current distress), could hardly be called ineffective.  He had spent decades in Congress, learning the ropes, and learning how to apply carrots and sticks, honey and vinegar, in proper proportion.  And of course, both were re-elected.

The last Secretary of State to be elected President was James Buchanan, a rank failure by any measure, inasmuch as the country split into two on his watch.  By that time, it was already becoming an uncommon path to the White House, although many had that ambition: Clay, Webster, Calhoun, Blaine, Seward.  Mostly, that was because the early Democratic-Republican Party established the office as the training ground for the Presidency, with Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and John Quincy Adams all moving directly from Foggy Bottom to the White House, and all directly in succession.  But Martin Van Buren would be the second-to-last one to make that move, and even then, he stopped off as Jackson’s second-term VP in-between.

He would be the last VP before George HW Bush to succeed the president he served in that role.  Nixon, Humphrey, and Gore all had close calls, but the only way most Veeps got to be chief executive was through succession, not election.

By far, the greatest number of presidents have been governors, and I confess that’s my personal preference.  Governors make decisions, senators make speeches.  Governors run offices, senators run their mouths.  There’s no place to hide as a governor, unlike Senate votes that can be calculated for effect, depending on who’s vulnerable on what issue.

Governors have to learn how to lead, how to work with legislatures, how to persuade, and what points to compromise on while advancing an overall agenda.  They have to make choices.  Effective senators do some of this, but are rarely in a position to have an overall view of where they want policy to go.

The good news is that Republicans have a deep crop of experienced governors waiting to enter the race – Perry, Walker, Bush, Jindal, Christie, Pence, Kasich.  That’s what happens when you build effective state machines, and when you focus on winning state legislative races.

While Hillary certainly has an imperial mentality, it’s unclear if she has an executive one.  And of the senators who’ve declared, only Rubio seems to have taken the time to truly educate himself on foreign policy.

As for me, I’m waiting for the governors.