With Newt Gingrich, 2012 GOP Race Isn't Just About the Governors

There’s no inherent reason why service in Congress is inferior to that in a governor’s mansion.

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That state governors, businessmen, or others with “executive” experience make better presidential candidates than Washington lawmakers is almost a truism in Republican politics.

It’s a big part of Mitt Romney’s appeal, such as it is, and is certainly a factor in the push to draft Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels into the 2012 Republican primary.

Former House Speaker and official ’12 contender Newt Gingrich realizes this--and he’s prepared to make an argument that I think is worth having. [See 11 reasons Newt Gingrich will be the 2012 nominee for president.]

Gingrich spokesman Rick Tyler tells The Atlantic:  “I don’t want to speak about any of the other candidates--they're all fine candidates--but none of them have worked on the federal level to balance budgets ... None of them have worked for tax cuts on the national level. Running a state just isn’t the same as working on the federal level.”

Read that last sentence again: “Running a state just isn’t the same as working on the federal level.”

In this respect, the Gingrich campaign is going to have turn conventional wisdom on its head; the former speaker is going to have to persuade Republican primary voters that what they think is a vice is actually a virtue. (Incidentally, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour was laying the groundwork for the same Jedi mindtrick regarding his lobbying past.) [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the GOP 2012 candidates.]

I’m second to no one in my loathing for Gingrich. He was a lousy speaker whose unchecked ego helped bring ruin to his party. His intellectual reputation is overblown (he’s more flaky futurist than policy wonk); and the born-again Catholic shtick is a lame attempt to bury a truly atrocious personal history.

But in this case, I will admit Gingrich is right. There’s no inherent reason why service in Congress is inferior to that in a governor’s mansion. A president who is on intimate terms with the peculiarities of the federal budget and how it’s funded is well-positioned to shape those budgets, for better or worse, in the future. (How many freshman House members knew what a “CR” was before this year?)

More importantly, the oft-claimed talent that governors supposedly have for balancing budgets is, more often than not, a rank sham.

Governors and state legislators are no more apt to make “hard choices” than supposedly spendthrift Washington politicos. All manner of accounting gimmicks make state budgets appear “balanced.” State revenues--and the formerly rosy projections of them--are acutely dependent on the overall national economy and on federal grants. And real spending cuts are avoided in state capitals and, instead, forced on local governments and municipalities.

Like I said, this is an argument that’s worth having.

In the primary contests to come, I hope Gingrich makes it in earnest.

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