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Governors Have 'The Best Job in Politics'

In his new book, political scientist Alan Rosenthal professes that no one gets what they want more than governors. Find out why.

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, who won office last year during a special gubernatorial election.
AP/Jeff Gentner
Being governor is great. With fairly few exceptions, most of them get most of what they want, in terms of both policies and budgets.

So concludes Rutgers University political scientist Alan Rosenthal in his new book, The Best Job in Politics. Rosenthal is known as one of the nation’s most acute observers of state legislatures, but in this book he trains his attention on the governors who have served over the past 30 years. “We may know about individual governors in our own states, but we know relatively little about the species,” Rosenthal writes.

What we learn is that the species is thriving. Many complain about not being masters of their own fate, having to respond to economic downturns, natural disasters and federal mandates. But by and large, most are able to achieve a great deal from their individual wish lists. By focusing on a few priorities -- generally, education and economic measures -- governors drive the agenda in their own states.

Rosenthal quotes one legislative leader as saying he’ll cooperate with the governor so long as the governor’s policies mesh with his own. But it’s clear that the real power governors enjoy is being able to command the bully pulpit and put forward legislation that is backed up in most places by budget-making power.

The true value of Rosenthal’s book for practitioners may be the instruction it offers through countless examples of ways to cajole and seduce legislators (or any other negotiating partner). Legislators take a lot of care and feeding, but ultimately they often prove limited in their ability to resist a governor’s will. “When the two partners in state governance stand up to dance, it is typically the governor who leads and the legislature that follows,” Rosenthal concludes.

One reason that governors are successful is that they are usually pragmatists. Unlike the binary yea-or-nay nature of legislative vote counting, governors seem willing to declare victory whether they get the whole loaf they asked for or just half. Also, few contemporary governors push “God, gays and guns” issues; they may respond to social issues raised by legislatures, but they seldom focus their energies on them.

Instead, most stick to the bread-and-butter concerns of keeping the government working and maybe making it run a little better. That’s why, with the glaring exception of revenues, most recent governors have achieved a lot of what they’ve tried. “When you go out a winner,” Rosenthal quotes former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar as saying, “you don’t have many regrets.”

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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