Sunday, December 28, 2003


Governors and Presidents

I was reading through the Sunday New York Times story about Howard Dean's history when I came across this rather puzzling argument at the very end:

Then there are the questions about whether a man whose chief political experience has been running a governor's office has the skills to run the federal government.

"A C.E.O.'s skills are essentially the same, no matter the size of the company," Dr. Dean said. "Clearly, with the presidency, you've also got to deal with defense. But otherwise, the basic problems are the same and the difference is the number of zeroes in the budget."

That may be understating the difference, even close supporters believe.

"The governor's staff was maybe five or six people, plus clerical help, and only two or three of those are really close to you," said Dick Mazza, a veteran Vermont senator and an ally. "You have, what, one state police officer assigned to you? It's a lot different from being president of the United States."

Whoever wrote this article probably has forgotten that it's very common for recent presidents to be governors. The current president, George W. Bush was governor of Texas, a state in which the governor has less executive power than in the average state and in which the legislature only meets every other year. (Perhaps the writer was suggesting that George W. Bush is not doing a very good job because he was a former governor.) The president before Bush was Bill Clinton, who when elected was the governor of Arkansas. Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter were also governors before they became President, although in Reagan's case several years passed before he won the Presidency. (And don't forget Franklin Roosevelt, who was Governor of New York, and Woodrow Wilson, who was Governor of New Jersey, before each became President). It is pretty hard to say that governors do less well in the job of president than the average president precisely because so many governors-- in the 20th century, at least-- have become presidents. Put another way, the average president in the 20th century *is* a former governor. It is worth considering why this should be so.

Although governors are usually not national politicians before they run for the presidency, they are the most likely to win the presidency, compared to Senators or Congressmen. Only former Vice Presidents can compare with them. In the ninteenth century, other members of the President's cabinet, for example the Secretary of State, often became president. But this becomes more rare in the 20th century. (The last two examples are Taft, who was Secretary of War before he became President in 1908, and Herbert Hoover, who was Secretary of Commerce before becoming president in 1928.) Since Franklin Roosevelt, at least, the most common job a President holds before becoming President is Governor or former Governor, and the second most common is Vice-President or former Vice-President. John F. Kennedy, a senator from Massachusetts, and Warren G. Harding, a Senator from Ohio, are the only two examples of a successful presidential campaign by a sitting Congressman or Senator in the twentieth century.

Why is this? Governors have two things going for them in mounting a successful presidential campaign. First, they have an executive and political staff already formed around them. (That is something that Vice-Presidents also have). Second, and probably more important, they can more easily portray themselves as outsiders than Senators, Congressmen, or former Vice Presidents can.

Party affiliation also is an important factor. A governor from a party opposite that of the incumbent president (or incumbent vice-president seeking to succeed an incumbent president) has a particularly strong advantage in portraying himself as an outsider to Washington politics. We can see this configuration at work in the following matchups: Roosevelt (D) versus Hoover (R), Carter (D) versus Nixon/Ford (R), Reagan (R) versus Carter (D), Clinton (D) versus George H.W. Bush (R), and George W. Bush (R) versus Clinton/Gore (D).

The ability of new faces to challenge the status quo from the hinterlands is an important but underappreciated feature of American federalism: Governors play a key role in keeping a party's fortunes alive when the party no longer controls the federal government. They are the farm team from which a party out of the White House can form a successful counter-insurgency. A party in the wilderness can still regroup by capturing governorships, and from these governorships new leadership often arises that can challenge the status quo, represented by the incumbent President (or Vice-President) of the other party.

Adlai Stevenson's case is the exception that proves the rule. Stevenson was a Democratic governor succeeding an incumbent *Democrat*, Harry Truman, who was very unpopular at the time, and he lost to the Republican, Dwight Eisenhower. Because Truman was from the same party as Stevenson, Stevenson was unable to establish himself as the outsider candidate in contrast to Eisenhower, while Eisenhower had the dual benefit of being a national hero and not a professional politician. The real exception is not Stevenson but the Republican Thomas Dewey, governor of New York, who lost to the incumbent Democrat, Franklin Roosevelt in 1944, and again in 1948 to the Democrat Harry Truman. I suppose you could argue that Dewey lost in 1944 because the country was not willing to change horses in mid-stream during World War II, and that in 1948 Truman successfully ran against the "Do Nothing" Republican Congress. Instead, I would simply acknowledge that sometimes the incumbent President (or, Vice-President running to succeed the incumbent President) can stave off a challenge from a sitting governor of the other party. It happened in 1944, it happened in 1988 (when Michael Dukakis, governor of Massachusetts, failed to defeat George H.W. Bush, the incumbent Vice-President) and it may happen in 2004 for all we know: Military success in Iraq and a booming economy may lead Americans to reward the incumbent, George W. Bush. Or a second terrorist attack (God forbid) may make Americans wary of changing horses in midstream.

In any case, the outsider-governor versus insider-incumbent-President matchup has happened so many times in the twentieth century that it suggests that governors have a definite advantage in Presidential matchups, despite the fact that they are usually not national politicians and have little if any experience in foreign policy before they take office. Whether this will continue to be the case in 2004 is anyone's guess. But it is hard to assert, as the New York Times article seems to, that Dean will have problems serving as president because he's a governor.

Thursday, December 18, 2003


Second Circuit Rules that Jose Padilla Cannot Be Held As Enemy Combatant

The decision was 2-1. The majority opinion is here. The dissent is here. The decision appears to turn on whether the President can unilaterally declare a citizen captured on U.S. soil an enemy combatant or whether Congress must approve such detentions. The majority stated that "[w]here, as here, the president's power as commander in chief of the armed forces and the domestic rule of law intersect, we conclude that clear Congressional authorization is required for detentions of American citizens on American soil."

Note the use of the word "clear" here. It is easy to argue that the Congressional resolution authorizing the President to retailiate against the 9/11 attacks is Congressional authorization. The September 18th, 2001 resolution authorizes the President "to use all necessary and appropriate force" against nations, organizations or individuals responsible for the 9-11 attacks or who are engaged in acts of international terrorism. However, the point of requiring a clear statement is to force Congress to consider whether it really wants to suspend the basic right of American citizens to the protections of the Bill of Rights by suspending the writ of habeas corpus, and whether it is willing to take the political heat for doing so. Note that the President seems perfectly willing to take the heat. But Congress is a multimember body that reflects multliple constituencies. It might not want to authorize the President to rescind-- according to his sole determination-- the most basic freedoms that Americans enjoy. The Second Circuit's clear statement rule is not much of a protection for civil liberties, but it is something.


Chairman of 9/11 Commission States that Attacks Didn't Have to Happen

Thomas Kean, the former Republican Governor of New Jersey, and chairman of the independent commission investigating 9/11, said that failures by government officials leading up to September 11, 2001 allowed the tragedy to occur:

"As you read the report, you're going to have a pretty clear idea what wasn't done and what should have been done. I mean, this was not something that had to happen," said Thomas Kean during an interview on the CBS Evening News.

Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey, said government officials in decision-making positions did not do their jobs in the weeks and months leading up to Sept. 11, 2001, or on that day, and should be held accountable.

"They failed. They simply failed," said Kean. He said if he were in charge, some of these people would still not be in their jobs today.

The story from CBS online offers additional details:

To find out who failed and why, the commission has navigated a political landmine, threatening a subpoena to gain access to the president's top-secret daily briefs. Those documents may shed light on one of the most controversial assertions of the Bush administration – that there was never any thought given to the idea that terrorists might fly an airplane into a building.

"I don't think anybody could have predicted that they would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile," said national security adviser Condoleeza Rice on May 16, 2002.

"How is it possible we have a national security advisor coming out and saying we had no idea they could use planes as weapons when we had FBI records from 1991 stating that this is a possibility," said Kristen Breitweiser, one of four New Jersey widows who lobbied Congress and the president to appoint the commission.

The widows want to know why various government agencies didn't connect the dots before Sept. 11, such as warnings from FBI offices in Minnesota and Arizona about suspicious student pilots.

"If you were to tell me that two years after the murder of my husband that we wouldn't have one question answered, I wouldn't believe it," Breitweiser said.

Kean admits the commission also has more questions than answers.

Asked whether we should at least know if people sitting in the decision-making spots on that critical day are still in those positions, Kean said, "Yes, the answer is yes. And we will."

Kean promises major revelations in public testimony beginning next month from top officials in the FBI, CIA, Defense Department, National Security Agency and, maybe, President Bush and former President Clinton.

I have long wondered when the 9/11 commission was going to begin making the story of 9/11 public. If Kean is able and willing to tell the whole story, this could be pretty interesting.

Sunday, November 30, 2003


The Next Six Months

Tom Friedman asks people on the left to get behind the rebuilding and democratization of Iraq.

For my money, the right liberal approach to Iraq is to say: We can do it better. Which is why the sign I most hungered to see in London was, "Thanks, Mr. Bush. We'll take it from here."

Friedman and I agree that we cannot simply leave Iraq but must make the best of it. Having invaded Iraq, (which he supported and I did not) we must put it on the right course toward democracy. If we do not, we will be in much worse shape in the long run.

But Friedman's argument betrays the difficulty of his position. On the one hand, he insists that "[t]he next six months in Iraq - which will determine the prospects for democracy-building there - are the most important six months in U.S. foreign policy in a long, long time." On the other, he describes the Bush team as "a partisan, ideological, nonhealing administration" and concludes that the task of democratiziation "is way too important to leave it to the Bush team alone." I think he is right on both counts. We are at a crucial crossroads in American foreign policy and the Administration has shown that it is simply not up to the task. It has proven much better at invading and destroying than rebuilding.

What Friedman has not explained is what liberals should do in this crucial six month period given that Bush seems to show no signs of wanting to listen to anyone but his own advisors. It's one thing to say that liberals should work for a more democratic Iraq. It's quite another to support a President who will not listen to what they say and is likely to mangle the situation as badly as he has mangled the previous six months. If Friedman is correct, by the time the Democrats regain the White House (if they do!) it may well be too late. Bush may have ruined the possiblity of a democratic Iraq for years to come. And Democrats will be left to clean up the mess created by this most unwise adventure in world domination. What infuriates many people on the left, I would suggest, is that given Bush's track record so far, they do not believe that he is really serious about making the tough choices necessary to democratize Iraq, particularly with an election coming up in less than a year. For Bush is above all a political animal, who will do what it takes to win reelection. Even if he is defeated in 2004, Democrats will inherit a much more dangerous world and a financially strapped government as a result of his bad policies. The Bush Administration has not only misplayed its hand, it has created a mess that will be very difficult to clean up no matter who is in office. Under the logic of Friedman's argument he should be wishing that election were held today rather than a year from now. For if Friedman is right, and there is no time to lose, he well understands that the wrong people are at the helm.

Back before the war, in September 2002, I argued that Bush was the most dangerous person on Earth. Not because he was evil, or bad hearted, or opposed to freedom, but because he was a gambler, cocksure, arrogant, and altogether convinced of his own rectitude. He and his Administration are the last people we should be trusting to handle this most delicate moment in American foreign policy. The war was unwise because it made us less safe, and weakened our hand in the war on terror. Now we must make the best of a bad situation. The first step is voting the person who made this terrible mess out of office as soon as possible.

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