The Republican Governors Association is meeting in Arizona, and naturally the talk has turned to how the only way Republicans can win the next presidential election is if they nominate a governor. One after another, the assembled are taking to the microphones to say things like, "While D.C. talks, governors act" (South Carolina's Nikki Haley), "The cure for what ails this nation will come more from our nation's state capitals than it ever will from our nation's capital" (Indiana's Mike Pence), and "What I have seen here is the incredible contrast between what is being discussed here and accomplished by these people ... as opposed to what is going on in Washington D.C." (New Jersey's Chris Christie). While there were four former governors who ran in the 2012 primaries—the remarkably lifelike Mitt Romney, the foolishly moderate John Huntsman, the man who brought new meaning to the expression "all hat and no cattle" (Rick Perry), and the incandescent fireball of charisma that was Tim Pawlenty—in 2016 there could be even more, including Christie, Pence, Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, John Kasich, and maybe even Jeb Bush.
And barring the unexpected emergence of the John Thune Explosion (feel free to take that as a name for your garage band, Senator) or the kind of collective suicide pact that would produce a Rand Paul nomination, it seems strongly likely that one of those guys is going to end up topping their ticket in 2016. So what is it that makes governors appealing as candidates?
We'll no doubt be talking about this plenty over the next couple of years. Part of it is that holding the top office in a state makes you look like you could hold the top office in the country, much more so than spending a few years in subcommittee meetings with a bunch of people who are at the same level as you. But critically, governors get toughened up in ways legislators don't necessary have to. They're much more acquainted with personal success and failure. They've been through crises, whether actual or political. You can skate by as a senator for years without doing very much, but even the worst governor is going to endure some serious stuff in ways that reveal whether they have the fortitude for a national campaign.
That isn't to say that seemingly successful governors don't frequently turn out to be complete duds when they step up to the big leagues, as evidenced by the four from 2012. There are also legislators who turn out to have What It Takes, as Barack Obama did. But it's no accident that he was the first sitting senator in half a century to ascend to the White House. And the Republican governors are right about one thing: if you're a Republican in Washington now, you're going to be tainted by the stench of what's gone on there recently, no matter what your role in it was.
Here's a parable, from The Wire, about the nature of executive political office. They're talking about being a big-city mayor, but being a governor isn't all that different.