Do They Know Darfur?

Governors running for president will have some uncomfortable moments in the year ahead.
April 1, 2007 AT 3:00 AM
Donald F. Kettl
By Donald F. Kettl  |  Columnist
Former dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Volcker Alliance and the Brookings Institution

A 77-slide PowerPoint show from the Mitt Romney campaign makes a quiet point about the changing context of presidential politics for 2008. The presentation touts Romney as a "tested, intelligent, get-it-done CEO governor" of Massachusetts. But then there's a slide, the Boston Globe reports, that acknowledges the charges that critics will make against him: They will claim he's "not a war leader, [lacks] strength of character, toughness."

That's a problem that all the governors and former governors running for president this year are going to have to deal with. Foreign policy is at the top of the campaign agenda. Does a career of budget-balancing in Boston, Little Rock or Santa Fe count as sufficient preparation for the challenges of the moment? It's a question that hasn't bothered most presidential candidates for an entire generation. Seven of the past eight presidents have been former governors. By the end of George W. Bush's term, governors will have occupied the Oval Office for 28 of the last 32 years. The only exception is George H.W. Bush -- who never served as a governor but did manage to father two of them. By comparison, 40 U.S. senators have run for president since 1960, and not one has been successful.

The political book on governors is that they make good presidential candidates because they can present successful policy records without having to defend a long trail of legislative votes. Any senator who has served even a couple of years has a thick stack of roll calls that opposition researchers can fire against him.

But this may be the year that book gets rewritten. State budget battles don't provide much experience relevant to settling the problems of the Middle East. To compensate, governors running for president can put themselves through a crash-course with big-name advisers. The question is whether it will be enough.What do they really know about Sunni-Shia-Kurd ethnic struggles? What should they do about Darfur's tragedy or North Korean nuclear weapons? Should we strengthen our alliance with the French or talk tough with Russia? And how should we ride through the tidal waves spun off of Chinese economic tsunamis?

Campaign experts advise presidential candidates to have a good, simple foreign policy narrative -- a lens for making the complexities of foreign affairs clear. "Trust but verify," "Mr. Gorbachev -- tear down this wall," or "You're with us or against us" -- all these narratives present a straightforward, soundbite-friendly way of talking to Americans about foreign policy. That's very hard for a governor to do, even after extensive foreign trade missions and foreign policy cram school.

Just ask Tom Vilsack, the former Iowa governor who was the first Democrat out of the presidential gate for 2006. He proved a serious guy with a sense of humor and made a splash on Jon Stewart's Comedy Central show. But he dropped out six weeks later when his kitty ran dry. He never got traction on presidentialness. Meanwhile, a pack of U.S. Senators, including John McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, were assuming places in the first rank of candidates.

Not all the non-senators are in this foreign policy predicament. New Mexico's Bill Richardson was ambassador to the United Nations. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani can trade on the iconic images of steadfast leadership amid the debris of the Twin Towers. They would seem best equipped among the non-senatorial candidates to convince voters they have the stature to lead in a tumultuous world. But even they have a selling job to do.

The senators have their own challenge. They might occupy a better platform, but the downside is that they are frequently asked to use it. A stand that sounds wishy-washy can eliminate any advantage in foreign policy credentials very quickly. A ringing declaration on the Senate floor can be undermined by seismic shifts on the battlefield.

That dilemma might help governors and mayors slide back into contention next year. But 2008 could also be the year in which the long run of president-governors comes to an end. And given the tumult in foreign policy, a shift away from gubernatorial advantage might prove very hard to reverse.