Governing Magazine June, 1998
IT PAYS TO KNOW WHERE THE BODIES ARE
BYLINE: Alan Ehrenhalt
If there's one thing I've learned from experience, it's that experience is overrated. How many times have you turned on a football or basketball playoff, listened to the announcers blather on about the importance of playoff experience, and then watched the battle-tested veterans get flattened by a collection of rank rookies? Experience is a lousy standard to use in picking a winner on the field. You almost have to be a sportscaster not to notice that.
By and large, the same principle holds in most fields of endeavor. You need a certain amount of experience to perform competently, but at some point, it ceases to be the most important credential. Forty years of practice doesn't make anyone the best candidate to represent you in court, remove your appendix, teach you piano or cater your wedding. If you think it does, you'll make the wrong choice more often than not.
But like all household truths, this one has its exceptions. If you look around carefully, you will probably notice that there are a few important jobs that still seem to be handled best by somebody who's been around the track a few times. The evidence of the past few years would suggest that governing a state is one of those. Not long ago, as a way of avoiding more productive work, I took out a piece of paper and made a list of the "best" American governors of the 1990s. Here, in no particular order, are the ones I came up with: Ned McWherter of Tennessee, George Voinovich of Ohio, Roy Romer of Colorado, Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, John Engler of Michigan and Zell Miller of Georgia.
I don't pretend there's anything objective about such a list, or that I'm the most qualified person to draw one up. But I have no particular axe to grind, and I tried as best I could to leave my own pet causes out of it. I was looking for governors who (1) set out a coherent policy agenda and accomplished most of it or (2) projected a consistent image of competence and authority.
All six of these contenders passed one or the other of these two tests. McWherter launched the nation's most innovative and widely copied health care and housing programs, and Miller rewrote his state's civil service law and steered through a nationally admired higher education funding program. Thompson and Engler took office vowing to reorganize state government along market-friendly lines, and to a great extent both of them accomplished it.
Voinovich and Romer don't fit so neatly in the innovation category, but I included them under the second criterion, as prudent and sensible managers who leave no doubt that somebody capable is in charge. Romer has demonstrated his negotiating skill in tough situations time after time, while Voinovich has proved to be exemplary at bringing labor and management together in an efficient administration.
I didn't draw much from this exercise in the way of partisan or ideological conclusions. McWherter, Romer and Miller are moderate Democrats, Voinovich is a moderate Republican, and Thompson and Engler are identified with the GOP right. You can argue that the activist left isn't represented on my list, but maybe that's because it hasn't elected many governors in the past decade.
But there's one interesting thing that all these governors have in common: On the day they were sworn in, they had served in government for a very long time.
McWherter spent 18 years in the Tennessee House of Representatives, 14 of them as its speaker. Romer was a state legislator for eight years and state treasurer for 10. Voinovich was a legislator, a county auditor, a county commissioner, and then a three-term mayor of Cleveland. Miller spent four years serving in the Georgia Senate and 16 years presiding over it as lieutenant governor. And each of them started young; all except McWherter made it to public office by the age of 30.
But the most interesting cases are Thompson and Engler. Both took office as sworn enemies of careerist government and bloated bureaucratic payrolls. But both had spent their entire adult lives in public office. Thompson was elected to the Wisconsin Assembly at age 24, the year he got his law degree. Engler was in an even greater hurry: He won his first term in the legislature at 22, before he had even graduated from college.
To critics on the left, the careers of Thompson and Engler have always been monuments to the hypocrisy of conservatives who bash government while making a living from it for decades on end. But there's a more benign and ultimately much more interesting point to make about these two conservative Republican careerists. They are tangible proof that a lifetime in public office is the best preparation for virtually anything you want to do in government--and that includes dismantling it.
Just why that should be so is an interesting question. Governing a state is difficult, but so are litigation and surgery, and they don't seem to demand experience in quite the way that being a governor does. There are brilliant brain surgeons fresh out of residency, and superb trial lawyers who have just been promoted from associate. There have been decent 32-year-old governors, too, but it's pretty clear that in recent years the truly superior ones, the ones who have placed their stamp on a state government and changed it permanently, have tended to come into power after an uncommonly long political apprenticeship.
The reason is that governing a state is not only difficult, but difficult in its own peculiar fashion. It involves threading one's way through a maze of complex institutions and personalities, bending them to one's will, and doing that without the benefit of any real instruments of autocratic power. It's a job for which creativity, intelligence and stamina alone are almost never enough.
The very best governors seem to know things that are very difficult to pick up anywhere else but in state government. They know how the legislature works, and who the pivotal members are, and how they can be flattered, cajoled, shamed and bullied. They are accustomed to bureaucratic inertia, but they have seen it conquered a few times over the years. They know they can appeal to the voters to rally support for a cause, but they also know they can't do it very often without wasting their credibility. In short, they know things that you aren't likely to know just because you are smart. Those who haven't mastered them tend to fail, no matter how much leadership ability they may have demonstrated in other lines of work.
I haven't made any list of the "worst" governors to go with my roster of the best, but I think I know what the ideal candidate for gubernatorial failure in the 1990s looks like. He's a successful self-made businessman, disdainful of government and uncomfortable with politics, accustomed to having his way in the private entrepreneurial world. He doesn't know many legislators, or want to know them. His main interest in the bureaucracy is in humbling it. He has no desire for a long career in politics--he just wants to come in, straighten things out and return to private life before he's contaminated. He's very smart, and articulate. He's just not very smart about the things governors need to know.
Gary Johnson, the Republican governor of New Mexico, is an extremely intelligent man. He became a multi-millionaire in the construction business by the time he was 40, and in 1994 decided to put his talents to work in Santa Fe, shaking up the state and rearranging its affairs on a businesslike basis. Three-and-a-half years into his term, he has succeeded mainly in establishing a condition of almost permanent warfare with the legislature, the bureaucracy and the court system, and vetoing nearly half the bills sent to his desk for signature.
You can't say that Gary Johnson hasn't made his presence felt on the New Mexico political scene. What you can say is that he hasn't exactly succeeded at establishing authority or enacting an agenda.
Nobody seems to realize that more than Johnson. "My whole life," he said a few months ago, "I've been a success because I possess a lot of really good ideas, and I'm able to implement those ideas." As governor, he admitted, "none of my good ideas get anywhere."
Some of Johnson's defenders say that is because he is too conservative, and others insist it is because he is too blunt, eccentric and temperamental. More likely, though, it is for a much more humdrum reason: He didn't spend the years between age 25 and 40 prowling the corridors of power in state government, figuring out where the bodies were buried. The difference between a Gary Johnson and a John Engler isn't brains or ideology, it's just preparation.
Of course, all the preparation in the world is no guarantee of success in running a state, any more than it is in running anything. Pete Wilson in California and Lawton Chiles in Florida both had spent more than two decades in public office when they arrived on the gubernatorial scene in 1990, and yet it would be difficult to classify either of them among the most successful governors of the past decade.
But at the very least, a life spent in politics immunizes any new governor--any chief executive in government at any level--against the dangerous illusion that he possesses more power than he really does. You may recall the rude awakening Harry Truman predicted for Dwight Eisenhower just before leaving office: "He'll sit here, and he'll say, 'Do this! Do that!' And nothing will happen. Poor Ike--it won't be a bit like the Army. He'll find it very frustrating."
You might argue that Eisenhower, notwithstanding his profound lack of political experience, ended up doing pretty well for himself. I agree with that. On the other hand, Eisenhower had the advantage of being a national hero. Not many governors have anything similar in their background to call upon. For them, 20 or 30 years in the trenches of state politics is as good a substitute as they are likely to find.
1. Why does Ehrenhalt believe that experience is an important qualification for a governor? Would he likely feel the same about the Presidency? What sorts of past experiences would be most helpful in these offices? Do you agree with Ehrenhalt about this? Why? Do you think the public looks for experience when deciding on whom to vote for?