Do Governors Make Better Presidents? Maybe Not After These Scandals

Do Governors Make Better Presidents? Maybe Not After These Scandals

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The conventional political wisdom has been that governors made the strongest presidential candidates. 

Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican George W. Bush both parlayed years in the Arkansas and Texas governor’s mansions into two-term presidencies. So did Ronald Reagan. The 2010 gubernatorial wave election that thrust Republicans Scott Walker, Rick Snyder, Rick Scott, John Kasich and Susana Martinez into state houses across the country seemingly produced a promising crop of future presidential candidates. And Republican Mitt Romney proved in 2012 that his experience as governor of Massachusetts was a useful route to a presidential nomination – if not a guarantee of election. 

Related: Analysts Dubious About Christie’s Presidential Hopes 

Overall, 20 of the 43 presidents in U.S. history previously served as governor. And throughout American history, about twice as many governors as senators have been chosen to be standard bearers by the major parties.

Walker, the high-profile governor of Wisconsin who made his reputation battling state employees over bargaining rights, won’t say whether he is considering running for president in 2016. But he insists that the GOP must nominate a governor and not a senator or congressman. Walker told The Daily Caller that lawmakers simply don’t have the sort of experience that governors can boast.

Asked to describe how he views the role of being governor — compared to being a senator — Walker responded: “Makes decisions. Gets things done. Held accountable. The buck stops with you.”

Yet practically overnight, the political gloss of being a governor has begun to fade. Political boasting of the virtues of state chief executives reaching the White House has given way to shock and head-scratching over two major scandals that may derail the presidential prospects of one leading Republican and possibly send another to prison. In a third case, a Republican senator who is likely to succeed Bobby Jindal as governor of Louisiana has demonstrated that low-life behavior is no disqualification for being a governor.

Related: Charges by Hoboken Mayor Over Sandy Funds Questioned

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, viewed by many as the Republicans’ 2016 presidential frontrunner after scoring an impressive reelection last November, was sworn in on Tuesday amid metastasizing scandals.

First came reports that several of his top advisers decided to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, N.J. who did not support Christie’s reelection, by closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge last September causing major traffic jams in Fort Lee. 

Then came charges by the Hoboken’s Democratic mayor, Dawn Zimmer, that the lieutenant governor told her last spring that Hurricane Sandy relief money for her city was contingent on Zimmer’s support for a commercial development in Hoboken favored by Christie. 

Christie has denied knowledge of any wrongdoing as the state legislature as federal authorities rev up investigations. But his popularity and credibility are falling like a stone. Instead of projecting integrity, administrative competence and a bipartisan spirit – traits critical to a politician who aspires to follow a moderate path to higher office – Christie for now looks like just another New Jersey pol trying to save his political skin. 

Related: McDonnell, Former VA Governor, Charged in Gifts Case

Former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen were charged on Tuesday with illegally accepting at least $165,000 in gifts, luxury vacations and a large loan from a wealthy Richmond area businessman in return for official favors.

Virginia prides itself in having a relatively clean government, so the news of McDonnell’s indictment came as a shock to many – even though there was ample warning in the press that McDonnell could be charged shortly after he left office this month.

McDonnell took office with a reputation as a straight arrow, and he was considered for the Republican vice presidential nomination in 2012 and mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in 2016. But now he must set aside any thought about his political future and instead fight to keep himself and his wife out of prison.

The charges in the 14-count indictment are not pretty: Business executive, Jonnie R. Williams Sr., showered the McDonnell’s with clothes, shoes and accessories from Oscar de la Renta and Louis Vuitton, two sets of golf clubs, two iPhones and a silver Rolex inscribed “71st Governor of Virginia.” Williams even picked up a $15,000 catering tab at McDonnell’s daughter’s wedding, according to the federal charges. In exchange, authorities said McDonnell and his wife worked to lend their prestige and help of the governor’s office to Williams’s failing dietary supplement company called Star Scientific.

McDonnell insists that while he used bad judgment in accepting the gifts, he did nothing illegal for Williams and that the case against him was an example of overreach by the federal government.

Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana announced on Tuesday that he will run for governor in 2015, and many political experts are predicting that he will succeed in replacing Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is term-limited.

If Vitter indeed succeeds, it will be another blemish on the governor’s mansion in a state with a storied record of scoundrels holding that office. In 2007, Vitter was forced to publicly apologize after his number was discovered in the telephone records of the “D.C. Madam,” the owner of a major escort service and prostitution ring in the Washington area. 

“This was a very serious sin in my past for which I am, of course, completely responsible,” Vitter, who is married and has four children, said in the statement.

Vitter was never charged in the matter, and a congressional panel cleared him of wrongdoing. “Through luck and perseverance he escaped the fate of many other politicians who were expelled from office after a sex scandal,” according to the Washington Post. “In recent years, Vitter has climbed from the depths of personal and political embarrassment to reestablish his footing as one of his state’s most popular politicians.”

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Washington Editor and D.C. Bureau Chief Eric Pianin is a veteran journalist who has covered the federal government, congressional budget and tax issues, and national politics. He spent over 25 years at The Washington Post.