The appearance of a number of GOP governors at CPAC– Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, New Jersey’s Chris Christie and Texas’s Rick Perry – is a reminder that while governors often make the best presidents — and in 2016 can bring needed gravitas and competence to the presidential race – there are also pitfalls for those seeking national office for the first time.
Christie may not have this problem, but governors who’ve never run for president underestimate what a national vetting is like. Issues they thought were aired and dismissed at the state level reappear, with more reporters and oppo teams combing through the archives for nuggets. The candidate who does not vet himself and is not prepared to respond to hordes of challenges, reveal taxes, satisfy voters on health concerns and have past writings and speeches flyspecked is making a huge mistake.
Presidential candidates are supposed to have a position on nearly every topic – and very quickly. There is no taking a pass on Ukraine or giving a “no comment” on global warming. That in turn necessitates a group of expert policy advisers who can help turn positions into proposals and find the flaws in their own and other campaigns’ plans.
All of that brings us to the unfortunate reality for many governors: The trusted staff that got them to the highest office they probably thought they’d ever hold and has been with them for a very long time may not be up to the task of running a presidential campaign. They may not have the expertise in national issues, the national campaign experience or the willingness to give harsh but necessary assessments of the candidate. This doesn’t mean every close adviser has to be left back at the state capitol, but it does suggest bringing in adequate numbers of new faces and putting together a team that meshes, compensates for one another’s weaknesses and is national campaign-ready.
The governors will also need a rationale for their presidential campaign that is more than, “I’m a successful executive and I’ve gotten things done with Democrats.” Almost by definition all the governors will have that going for them. What will make them different? In Texas, Perry, for example, has a specific economic record that is superior to almost every other state. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker can say he’s gone into the lion’s den, whipped Big Labor and made his state the better for it. But a generic –aren’t governors the best? – message is unlikely to elevate one governor over the others.
Debates in 2016 may be fewer and farther between than in the 2012 race, but there will nevertheless be some. Moreover, fewer debates make each one more important. There are also nonstop interviews to deal with. It may have been a very long time since some governors last faced off against an adept debater and/or extremely adversarial interviewers. Governors, who often reside in a bubble of their own with security, drivers, taxpayer-funded homes and entertainment, will find themselves quickly cut down to size. They need to get over any sense of privilege and any annoyance at being treated like just one more candidate.
Governors in 2016 may be among the best GOP presidential candidates. But if history is any guide, ill-prepared candidates will find the process unnerving and disorienting. They tend to underestimate how entirely different a presidential nomination process is from a statewide race. They should start preparing now — once it starts it’ll be too late.