September 23rd, 2018


Call it more conventional unwisdom

Fred Barnes

By Fred Barnes

Published Dec. 14, 2015

A corollary to the notion of a governor's advantage has also died. Given their dislike of President Obama, Republican voters were supposed to be leery of electing another first-term senator with a thin record. On the contrary, senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are in the top tier, along with Donald Trump and Ben Carson. Rubio has been a senator since 2011, Cruz since 2013.

Republican voters, a large bloc of them, have changed their minds about what they want in a presidential candidate. In March, a Pew poll found that 57 percent of Republicans believed it is more important for a candidate to have "experience and a proven record" than "new ideas and a different approach." Only 36 percent preferred a candidate with a fresh approach.

By September, the numbers had flipped. Nearly twice as many Republicans—65 percent—said experience is less important than a candidate's ideas and different style. Those saying experience was more important dipped to 29 percent.

The first casualty of this dramatic reversal was Texas's Rick Perry, who dropped out in September. Perry had an impressive record as a conservative governor before bolstering his candidacy by developing expertise on foreign affairs. But "our perceived strength was actually a great weakness," said Perry's campaign manager Jeff Miller.

The rise of Trump, a real estate mogul, appears to have both spurred the change in voters' attitudes and benefited from it. Ben Carson, the retired brain surgeon, is another beneficiary.

Trump "has sold himself as a mega-executive, a kind of super-governor, who makes tough decisions and doesn't wither under fire," said the University of Virginia's Larry Sabato. "He's the big shot looming over this field of garden-variety politicians. .??.??. Whatever you think of Trump's positions, he projects leadership, decisiveness, and success."

Aside from the Trump effect, governors have been hurt by "the fact that millions of GOP voters are just plain rejecting conventional politics after the election of a GOP Congress that didn't seem to change much," Sabato said. "Why would governors be spared the base's wrath when it's directed at the party establishment? Governors are status quo, too."

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Wisconsin governor Scott Walker have not been spared. They started from first-place in polls and gradually fell out of favor. Poor performances in televised debates were a factor. Critics of Bush blame him for "underperforming."

Presidential campaigns are usually about the future. But Bush and Walker emphasized achievements as governors—that is, the past. Bush was successful as a reform governor from 1999 to 2007. Walker, now in his second term, broke the chokehold of public sector unions on state government. Walker dropped out in September.

Bush's decline has a poignancy because his father and brother reached the White House. "Jeb is the most qualified of the candidates to be president," an official of a rival campaign told me. "He just doesn't have the political skills."

John Kasich is a popular governor in Ohio, won reelection in a landslide, and has a record of economic success. But after an initial burst, his presidential bid has faltered. Ex-governors Jim Gilmore of Virginia and George Pataki of New York haven't gotten off the ground. Louisiana's Bobby Jindal ended his campaign in November.

A serious problem for Republican governors has been all but ignored by the media and the political community: Common Core. It requires state standards for K-12 students on what they should know in math and what's called English language arts. In numerous states, parents have revolted against Common Core for downgrading the teaching of traditional math and literature.

The issue has been unsettling for the campaigns of Bush, Kasich, Walker, and New Jersey's Chris Christie. They have sought to separate themselves from Common Core after initially endorsing it. Bush, for instance, says the federal government needs to stay out of Common Core. Walker waffled, and this contributed to his demise as a presidential candidate.

In Washington, the conservative American Principles Project is spearheading a national effort against Common Core. And it has begun to draw media attention to the issue, one whose impact has been underestimated.

Alone among governors, Christie has found a way to escape the downside of being a governor. He's not running as a governor. He's running as a federal prosecutor who handled terrorism and national security cases as a U.S. attorney after the 9/11 attacks.

In Iowa last week, he said: "Let me suggest this to everybody. If a center for the developmentally disabled in San Bernardino, California, is a target for radical Islamic terrorism, then every place in America is a target for radical Islamic terrorism."

Meanwhile, the New Hampshire Union Leader endorsed Christie for president, arguing he is the best prepared to thwart ISIS, the terrorist group. The New Hampshire primary is on February 9.

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Fred Barnes is Executive Editor at the Weekly Standard.