Rightfully so, the nation for the last two weeks has been engrossed in several dialogues—on race, on marriage equality, on Pope Francis and his encyclical on global warming and its impact, particularly on the disadvantaged, on foreign trade agreements, on negotiations with Iran and its nuclear capabilities, on the threat posed by ISIS. Important issues, issues that have overshadowed another debate, one that is especially pertinent to Republicans.
There’s a not so silent argument going on among presidential hopefuls and their respective supporters debating whether anyone hoping to attain the highest office in the land needs prior executive experience. Otherwise, as those who favor gubernatorial or business experience often admonish, the country might wind up with another “community organizer” running America. Those without a governorship or a CEO title on their CV suggest that time served in the (once) greatest deliberative body in the world, the U.S. Senate, gives them the cred to lead the nation forward.
If recent history can be a guide, the debate would wind up as a teiku, what the Talmud describes as a stalemate in deliberations that will only be adjudicated when the prophet Elijah returns to Earth to herald the beginning of the messianic era.
Let’s consider the history of the presidency going back 50 years:
Lyndon Johnson never ran a state government but as president was a masterful manipulator of Congress, a byproduct of his long tenure as a senator from Texas. If not for his failure to control our deepening involvement in Vietnam and the domestic turmoil it engendered, he would rank among our most progressive presidents.
Richard Nixon had scant congressional and senate experience, but he was vice president for eight years, albeit never really close to the decision making of president Dwight D. Eisenhower. Watergate, and Nixon’s expansion of the war in Southeast Asia, cloud much of what we think of him. Yet he did have domestic and foreign policy triumphs, including opening relations with communist China, creating the Environmental Protection Agency, and ending the military draft. He was not liked, but he was effective.
After a long career as a congressman and a short time as vice president, Gerald Ford presided over a depressed economy battered by high inflation. He’s remembered for one signature executive decision—the pardoning of Richard Nixon.
Four of the next six presidents (Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush) served as governors. It’s hard to separate one’s political leanings from an assessment of each of their terms of office.
Carter oversaw the Camp David Accords but was viewed as an ineffectual leader by most onlookers.
Reagan was an undisputed great communicator. Conservatives loved him (even though he raised taxes 11 times). He forged an aggressive anti-Soviet Union stance. But his foreign policy was stained by the Iran-Contra scandal. He championed supply-side economics, another tainted legacy that rewarded the rich at the expense of the middle and lower classes.
Putting aside the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Clinton posted an impressive list of accomplishments, among them the longest economic expansion in the nation’s history with ancillary growth in jobs and home ownership.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. A legacy of misguided foreign and domestic responses to 9/11 by George W. Bush. Bush squandered the budget surplus he inherited from Clinton. The wars and his failure to avert the Great Recession left the nation mired in debt.
His father, George Bush I, arguably, had the most impressive resume of any president of the last 50 years. His four years in office reached its peak in the formation of a wide ranging coalition against Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. But his failure to connect with the public, coupled with conservative anger at his raising taxes despite vowing not to, and the third party candidacy of Ross Perot, thwarted his second term bid.
Barack Obama, arguably, had the least impressive resume before entering the Oval Office. Despite Republican militancy from Day One of his administration, Obama’s legacy includes passage of the Affordable Care Act extending health coverage to millions as well as overseeing the economic recovery.
So what are we to make of it all? Reagan and Clinton are revered by their respective parties, loathed by the opposition. Bush II and Carter are disdained by both parties.
Johnson-Nixon are symbols of failed expectations muffling great accomplishments. Ford and Bush the Elder are afterthoughts, no more thought of than Franklin Pierce or Chester Arthur.
Obama alternately frustrates and excites Democrats. He is demonized by Republicans.
Looking further back in history our greatest president— Abraham Lincoln—revealed little public success prior to his election. He served but two years in Congress, six years in the Illinois state house. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, on the other hand, and his cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, served as governor of New York, among their other appointed and elected positions.
George Washington was a general; before that a member of the House of Burgesses in Virginia. Woodrow Wilson was governor of New Jersey. Thomas Jefferson was Washington’s secretary of state then vice president under John Adams. But being secretary of state and vice president didn’t help Martin van Buren rise to greatness as a president.
The aforementioned undistinguished Pierce was a congressman and senator. James Polk and Calvin Coolidge were governors. Warren Harding was a senator.
So there you have (most of) it. Being a governor is no ticket to success as president. Nor is a legislative background. It is a hung jury on the value of a military career. Washington—a plus. Mixed reviews for Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant and Eisenhower (though Ike is gaining esteem of late).
With so many governors seeking the presidency(by my count there are 8 from the GOP, along with two Democrats, among the 20 or so hopefuls), we are bound to hear lots of talk about their being used to making executive decisions and working across the aisle to forge a united way forward.
Just keep in mind that history is no guide. It all depends on the man and woman behind the talk.