In the recent Republican debate in Iowa, Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman repeatedly cited examples from their governorships to illustrate how they would act as president.
That ability graphically illustrated why governors often seem to have a leg up over their congressional rivals in campaigning for the nation’s top governmental executive office.
But the history of the four former governors who reached the White House in the last 35 years indicates that wide differences in their pre-presidential experience were important factors in shaping their success with a Congress that is very different from most state legislatures.
It’s hardly surprising that the former governor who enjoyed the most success with lawmakers was Ronald Reagan, who learned during two terms in Sacramento the complexities of working with opposition Democrats in a highly partisan two-party system.
Ironically, the one who had the least success was a Democrat serving with a Democratic Congress. Jimmy Carter disdained Washington’s lawmakers by likening them to the parochial legislators with whom he dealt as Georgia governor.
George W. Bush and Bill Clinton encountered substantial difficulty because of the differences between Congress and the Texas and Arkansas legislatures. Bush, who gained a Texas reputation as a centrist conciliator who worked with many Democrats, took a very different approach in Washington, governing mostly through his fellow Republicans and drawing sharp partisan lines.
After two acrimonious, partisan years, Clinton moved to the center and worked with House Speaker Newt Gingrich and other GOP leaders to produce bipartisan welfare reform overhaul and a far-ranging balanced budget tax cut bill. Even entitlement reform might have been possible had it not been for the Monica Lewinsky affair.
Looking ahead, the gubernatorial experiences of Huntsman, Romney and Texas’ Rick Perry suggest they would pursue very different approaches as a president dealing with Congress.
Romney, governing a predominantly Democratic state, was forced to work pragmatically with a Democratic state house to pass important initiatives from budget changes to the landmark health reform bill that became a model for President Barack Obama’s controversial national legislation.
Perry, governing with a conservative Republican legislature, pursued a more ideological course very different from the kinder, gentler Bush tone with a Legislature controlled by conservative Democrats.
And Huntsman had a relatively easy time as the conservative governor of a small, conservative state with a Republican Legislature, a situation that bears little relevance to circumstances in Washington.
Given the greater likelihood that Romney or Perry will be nominated, their experiences seem more relevant.
Romney tried to push Massachusetts to the right but encountered predictable resistance from a heavily Democratic legislature. He vetoed nearly 1,000 measures in four years, but legislators often overrode him.
He also displayed a conciliatory stance he doesn’t mention much but would need as president, including increasing revenues to meet the state’s balanced budget requirement. While he pushed first for spending cuts, he also compromised on tax measures including loophole closures that increased business taxes and increased authority for localities to raise taxes.
His signal example of bipartisan cooperation was on the health care bill that passed after Romney formed an alliance with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy.
Campaigning earlier this year in New Hampshire, Romney joked that their agreement on the bill might have meant one hadn’t read it, but added, “The truth was we had both read it, and we’d found some common ground. And I think that has to happen in Washington.”
That bent seems far less likely under a President Perry, based on his experience in Texas where Republican majorities helped him govern as an unyielding conservative. He indicates he’d bring the same philosophy to Washington.
Some Texas critics suggest that Perry, through much of his tenure, was disengaged from the legislative process in a state where governors historically have had far more influence through appointments than in working on legislation with lawmakers.
But he developed a reputation as a strong governor and, buoyed this year by a bigger Republican majority, was more aggressive in pushing a conservative agenda, including measures requiring sonograms for women facing abortions, limiting lawsuits and tightening voting requirements.
That hardly seems a prescription for reducing partisan wrangling in Washington.