Chris Christie’s Governors-Only Talking Point Doesn’t Wash

By Berny Belvedere Published on February 9, 2016

On Saturday night, in the early moments of the most recent GOP debate, Marco Rubio gave the Glitch Heard ‘Round the World. Rubio’s breakdown occurred amidst a withering attack from Chris Christie, who among other things raised doubts about Rubio’s preparedness for office. Let’s explore Christie’s claim more closely.

Here’s what Christie said:

Every morning when a United States senator wakes up, they think about what kind of speech can I give or what kind of bill can I drop? Every morning, when I wake up, I think about what kind of problem do I need to solve for the people who actually elected me?  It’s a different experience….

You have not be involved in a consequential decision where you had to be held accountable.… When you’re president of the United States, when you’re a governor of a state, the memorized 30-second speech where you talk about how great America is at the end of it doesn’t solve one problem for one person. They expect you to plow the snow. They expect you to get the schools open. And when the worst natural disaster in your state’s history hits you, they expect you to rebuild their state, which is what I’ve done. None of that stuff happens on the floor of the United States Senate. It’s a fine job, I’m glad you ran for it, but it does not prepare you for president of the United States.

Christie sees the president’s job as fundamentally involving problem-solving. That’s a blinkered, overly technocratic view of the presidency, but set that aside for the moment. Notice that Christie’s critique goes beyond Rubio and calls into question the readiness of any candidate lacking executive experience. This would include Ted Cruz, the only candidate who has won an electoral contest thus far, thought by a plurality of GOP caucus goers in Iowa at least to be the candidate most ready for the presidency.

And Christie’s claim goes even further: It’s not that this particular pair of first-term senators lack the experience necessary to be president, as though it were some personal idiosyncrasy that disqualifies only them. Rather, Christie is making the stronger claim that executive experience is a necessary condition for being president. The corollary is that political experience of the legislative kind is either useless or at least grossly insufficient for presidential aspirants.

Christie’s argument is vulnerable on two fronts. As an argument about the nature of presidential leadership, it fails to appreciate how experience of various kinds can contribute to preparedness. And as a historical argument, it is open to several counterexamples from the annals of presidential history that directly challenge his claim.

Christie’s view seems like a straightforward additive theory of presidential experience: a governor is the president of a single state; a president is the same, just with more states. Plainly, then, a president’s job is a governor’s job, writ large. Indeed, our country’s legacy of federalism ensures the strong professional resemblance between president and governor. So far, so good; rejecting Christie’s argument doesn’t require denying any of the above.

The problem is that Christie appears to be taking too narrow a view of what constitutes useful experience, misunderstanding the nature of presidential leadership. Take his own words as a reference point. On Saturday night, Christie began his offensive by contrasting the motivations of senators and governors: when senators plan their days, they worry about giving speeches and dealing with legislation; when governors plan theirs, they worry about solving their constituents’ problems.

This is a curious perspective on the difference between legislators and governors. For some reason, Christie is under the impression that legislative deliberation is not about solving problems. Was Rubio’s bill to reform the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, which he gave speeches about at the House-Senate Conference Committee in order to help it pass, not fundamentally about solving problems? Florida has the third largest population of veterans in the country. Is Rubio’s VA reform bill, which allowed VA leadership to fire incompetent officials in light of recent scandals, not the very thing Christie has in mind when he references problem-solving as the paradigmatic presidential skill?

The truth is that the attributes commonly associated with leadership — strength, courage, wisdom, integrity, effective communication, the capacity to inspire, decisiveness (to name a few) — can be cultivated in a variety of jobs, including that of a United States Senator. Christie asserts otherwise but never explains why problem-solving should be seen as the exclusive domain of governors. His argument amounts to a dressed up version of the “actions, not words” refrain. To speak (i.e. give speeches) and write (i.e. draft legislation) is not what presidents do — presidents act (i.e. solve-problems). Unfortunately, Christie has come nowhere near an explanation for why we should accept this binary.

The historical record also seems to resist Christie’s emphasis on gubernatorial experience. History is replete with examples of bad as well as good presidents who had served as governors; and the president often chosen by historians as the best, or one of the best, American presidents, Abraham Lincoln, was a legislator without executive experience.

Although it was hard to tell since Rubio did not express himself clearly, Rubio and Christie seemed to be talking past each other. Rubio took Christie to be offering executive experience as the sole criterion of presidential readiness. Rubio’s response was to suggest that Obama is not incompetent, just deeply and irremediably misguided. Rubio wanted to press the point that it’s not that Obama has been ineffective — the implication being that senators can be highly effective — but that he has been highly effective in the wrong direction. Politically, this is dangerous territory as it cedes the view that Obama is a highly competent public figure. But the point was, presumably, to push back against the claim that senators cannot be effective at pursuing an agenda.

Interestingly, Christie’s own claim to presidential readiness is his stint as governor of New Jersey. Nearly one hundred years before Christie, Woodrow Wilson became the U.S. President, a man who also had executive experience as the governor of New Jersey. How did Wilson fare as president? Wilson effectively pursued the most far-reaching, government-expanding progressivism the country had ever seen. Wilson, like Obama, was tragically effective at pursuing a progressive agenda.

Yes, leadership skills are important, but most, and perhaps all of the candidates on the stage Saturday night have demonstrated those skills in a variety of roles. What else is needed? Right ideas, held with conviction and pursued wisely and tenaciously.

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