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Romney’s Winning Hand?

Portrait of Governor Romney

Portrait of Governor Romney, painted by Richard Whitney, reused under the GFDL license.

Now that we have some distance from Mitt Romney’s less than spectacular victory in Michigan Tuesday night, perhaps it is worth considering just what Romney has that the rest of the Republican field can’t seem to acquire or destroy. Romney’s got money, organization, and the support of the professionals in the Party, to be sure. But he also has something that has been the only elixir to taking down a sitting president since Benjamin Harrison defeated Grover Cleveland in 1888. He has a governor’s resume.

Neither Newt Gingrich nor Rick Santorum can get out of the way of their own rhetorical grenades, fair enough. But they have been most devastated by the nasty secret of deliberative democracy, one that governors have always been best able to hide: you have to cut deals to make things happen. Whether this amounts to “taking one for the team” as Santorum inartfully put it, or being a “creature of Washington” as Gingrich has been described, the legislative process is often nasty, poor, brutish, and, well, more brutish. How can Romney, with all of the video out there about his innumerable “flip-flops” survive the tag’s mortal sting? It’s because the field is cleared of other governors who would have been far less likely to suffer the accusation.

There’s a reason every president who’s lost an election since the dawn of professional baseball has fallen to a governor. They somehow hold onto the imprimatur of outsider, and outsiders are what voters have coveted when they’ve been clearly dissatisfied with their Chief Executive. What’s perhaps most striking is that governors have proven to be powerful agents of national political change. Sometimes this change has been widely popular; at other times, it has been deeply reviled. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to imagine the modern presidency – indeed, our most successful presidents in memory– outside of the context of their gubernatorial backgrounds.

A simple thought experiment will suffice. Can you envision Senator Ronald Reagan brokering a deal at some ungodly hour in Washington? Is it conceivable that FDR would have been remotely comfortable as Speaker of the House? How about Teddy Roosevelt from the bully pulpit of New York’s 2nd congressional district? The truth is, there’s a reason why neither TR, Woodrow Wilson, FDR, nor Reagan spent a day in Congress. The deliberative process – a cherished and hopefully still valued art in our democratic system – was seen as largely beneath them. And in truth, it is something American voters have found undignified in their would-be presidents.

So, for all of Romney’s woes – and they are aplenty – he has a record, however complicated, that suggests he can be a strong executive at a time many in the nation are questioning whether we have one in the White House. Defeating President Obama will be no small matter, and I suspect, on this late winter date, it is a dubious proposition at best. But if it is to happen, history says it will be at the hand of Governor Romney, not the least of which because that political prefix has proven essential to an uncertain electorate.

Saladin M. Ambar is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University.  A former Fellow at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, he is the author of "How Governors Built the Modern American Presidency," due out in April (University of Pennsylvania Press).

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