For 2008, There's Room at the Top In sum, the gubernatorial class of presidential candidates is a far cry from what it might be. It could be that in 2008, for the first time in nearly a generation, the voters will be forced to choose among Washington insiders when choosing their next president.
NPR logo For 2008, There's Room at the Top

For 2008, There's Room at the Top

Florida's Gov. Jeb Bush (center) has said he doesn't want his brother's job; Iowa's Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat (right), may be tempted by an open field. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

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Alex Wong/Getty Images

When you think about the field for the next presidential election, the theme is "room at the top."

You may have already heard that 2008 will be the first time since 1952 that the list of prospective candidates does not include either the incumbent president or the incumbent vice president. For more than a half century, we've always begun the presidential cycle with a clear idea of hierarchy — at least within the party in power.

No more. And that fact alone makes the lure of running in 2008 a little brighter for the men and women who rise daily, face the mirror and faintly hear "Hail to the Chief" playing somewhere in the distance.

But there is yet another big open space in the presidential field in both parties: the remarkable lack of competitive candidates from the ranks of the nation's governors.

If there's one thing we've learned in recent cycles, it's that American voters' taste in presidents favors former governors. Four of the last five men elected to the White House were governors: George W. Bush of Texas, Bill Clinton of Arkansas, Ronald Reagan of California and Jimmy Carter of Georgia.

This may mean many things. One suggestion is that it reflects the affection Americans felt for governors who became presidents in the first half of the 20th century. William McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge and Franklin Roosevelt all came to national prominence thanks to their performance as governors.

A Chief Executive's Allure

On another level, voters' respect for governors could be about the executive experience governors gain in office. They lead whole states, fulfilling symbolic customs and traditions, appointing people to big jobs and commuting sentences and wrangling endlessly with legislatures.

Voters may not consciously register the degree to which these functions transfer from statehouse to the White House. But they do get that these are the responsibilities of an executive, and discharging them conveys an image of leadership — of judgment exercised by a single individual — far more than the daily intrigues and compromises of a senator.

Those who serve in legislative bodies learn to survive and be part of the machinery. Governors govern. And a sense of assurance in power is what the voters are usually looking for in a president, whether consciously or not. So for more than a century, whenever short lists of presidential prospects have been composed, there's usually been a steady supply of ambitious governors, all waiting to hear their names mentioned.

So why not in 2008? This time, there are scarcely enough governors in the mix to make up a good poker table.

This is especially surprising on the Republican side. The GOP has had a majority of the governorships for a dozen years (a skein that will end as the governors elected on Nov. 7 take office). But as of right now, Republicans still hold 28 of the governorships, including most of the 10 most populous states and all of the Big Four: California, Texas, New York and Florida.

The Red Team

Two of the Big Four governors, Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Rick Perry of Texas, were just re-elected on Nov. 7. But neither will run for president in 2008: Schwarzenegger because he was born an Austrian and Perry because he is not strong enough in his home state to be taken seriously beyond it.

The other two in the Big Four are retiring and both (George Pataki of New York and Jeb Bush of Florida) have special inhibitions in the presidential wars. Pataki has served three terms. Who would have foreseen this when he entered the contest against Mario Cuomo in 1993? But he leaves office deeply unpopular.

In Florida, Bush is generally acknowledged as a better politician than his older brother, but at the moment that amounts to damning with faint praise. His best show of political acumen may have been his early declaration that he would not run for the White House in 2008. Nothing that has happened since would be incentive to reconsider.

So which Republican governors are actually running? The best known is Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, stepping onto the national stage after a single term in office. Romney could see a big blue tide coming at him, and he got out of the way. His chosen successor lost in a landslide this month, giving Democrats the governorship for the first time since Michael Dukakis left the office in 1990.

Romney has begun hiring some nationally known talent (Alex Castellanos has made some of the best-known attack ads of our time). But Romney's essential appeal is his record in Massachusetts, the quintessentially Democratic state. Some conservative distrust anyone who could run well in the Bay State. Romney is also a Mormon, which creates another area of vulnerability among evangelicals who see that faith as outside mainstream Christianity.

The other Republican governor in the hunt is Mike Huckabee of Arkansas. Born in Hope (birthplace of Bill Clinton), Huckabee became a Baptist preacher and TV producer before entering politics and serving a decade as governor. He may be best known for losing more than 100 pounds through a regimen of diet and exercise. But is he even a dark-horse candidate for president?

If you like really long shots, there's also Tommy Thompson, who cut short his fourth term as governor of Wisconsin to become President Bush's secretary of Health and Human Services in 2001. Thompson, who had toyed with a presidential candidacy in the late 1990s, was asked last week why he was running. His reply: "Why not?"

The Blue Team

The gubernatorial goods are not much more alluring on the Democratic side. Perhaps the most intriguing governor to consider the 2008 race was Mark Warner, the highly successful chief executive in Virginia. But Warner took himself out of contention earlier this fall, citing other priorities, including his family. Is he regretting that choice in the wake of the Nov. 7 election results?

Evan Bayh is a second-term Democratic senator who also served two terms as governor in red-state Indiana. He retains the aura of a centrist in his home state, but he has been tacking steadily leftward in the Senate as he contemplates a run for national office in 2008. But his lack of profile during eight years in the Senate suggests he is thinking of the No. 2 spot on the party ticket.

Also showing up on the list of Democratic prospects is Tom Vilsack, who is leaving office this winter after two terms as governor of Iowa. The farthest thing from a national household name, Vilsack would be counting on a strong showing against the field in his home state's caucuses in January 2008. If he won in Iowa, he might be able to compete in the other January events in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. But he will have to bring his Midwestern persona to a higher temperature if he is to make the second round of winnowing events.

Finally, there is New Mexico's Gov. Bill Richardson, who made a name for himself as a congressman and as Clinton's ambassador to the United Nations. Richardson is Hispanic and would bring that dimension to a national ticket in 2008; for now, his interest in the presidency must be seen in that light.

In sum, the gubernatorial class of presidential candidates for 2008 is a far cry from what it might be. The big-state governors are not in the running, and the torch has passed to mid-size and small-state chief executives who lack the financial resources, name recognition and media presence to compete with the likes of John McCain, Hillary Clinton and other senators already known to the public at large.

It could be that in 2008, for the first time in nearly a generation, the voters will be forced to choose among Washington insiders when choosing their next president.