It is often said, usually by moderate Republicans, that the GOP should never nominate a senator as its presidential candidate.
Governors, after all, have experience managing bureaucracies, and their abilities more neatly translate into the Oval Office. Last year at CPAC, Governor Chris Christie contrasted his own leadership to “people in Washington who only want to talk.” It wasn’t lost on anyone who he meant.
There’s something to that critique, especially following the amateurish and demagogic presidency of former senator Barack Obama. As Madeleine Lee contemplates in Henry Adams’ novel Democracy: “To her mind the Senate was a place where people went to recite speeches, and she naively assumed that the speeches were useful and had a purpose, but as they did not interest her she never went again.”
So pointless speechifying is a background senators must have. But another is foreign policy, something with which governors have no experience whatsoever.
And if this year’s CPAC is any indication, it might be time to consider nominating one of those bloviating senators. The three serious 2016 Republican presidential candidates with gubernatorial experience, Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie, offered nothing on foreign policy beyond gaffes and slogans.
Governor Walker dented an otherwise shiny speech by comparing jihadists like ISIS to union demonstrators he faced in Wisconsin. “If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same around the world,” he declared. The Madison uprisings were rowdy, but their participants noticeably failed to implement Sharia law in the governor’s mansion or declare a caliphate over a vast swath of the Midwest. Walker later clarified to reporters: “Let me be perfectly clear: I’m just pointing out the closest thing I have to handling this difficult situation is the 100,000 protesters I had to deal with.” We noticed.
Walker then outdid himself on Saturday by claiming that “the most significant foreign policy decision” of his lifetime was Ronald Reagan’s firing of thousands of air traffic controllers. This from someone who lived through part of the Vietnam War, much of the Cold War, Reagan’s bombing of Moammar Gaddafi, the invasion of Grenada, the Reykjavik negotiations with Gorbachev, the scrapping of the Berlin Wall, the First Gulf War, Mogadishu, the Rwandan Genocide, the intervention in Kosovo, Clinton’s attack on a Sudanese drug factory, 9/11, the war in Afghanistan, the Second Gulf War, Russia’s aggression against Georgia, the overthrow of Moammar Gaddafi, the Arab Spring, the Syrian Civil War, Putin’s annexing of Crimea, and the rise of ISIS.
Former governor Jeb Bush is often called the most hawkish candidate in the race. But asked by Sean Hannity what he would do to confront ISIS, Bush only mentioned creating a safe zone for the Free Syrian Army and not restricting the president from deploying ground troops. This followed his ballyhooed foreign policy speech two weeks earlier that was notably vacant on foreign policy and characterized primarily by his harrumphing that he didn’t “understand the debate” over the NSA.
Governor Chris Christie didn’t mention foreign policy once. To be fair, his address was in the form of an interview, and his questioner, Laura Ingraham, never asked him about ISIS or Iran. But even beyond CPAC, Christie has evinced little interest in foreign policy beyond attacking Rand Paul as “dangerous.”
Contrast that with Paul himself, whose speech touched on many foreign policy specifics, and who’s been at the nucleus of several foreign policy initiatives in the Senate, including his drafting of an AUMF and his attempt to block foreign aid to Egypt following their military coup. Or even Marco Rubio: he spent most of his time at CPAC belting out the National Anthem while a star-spangled eagle flew him around the ballroom, but American exceptionalism theatrics aside, he unquestionably has experience with foreign policy issues.
Yes, the Senate is a comfortable home for those who enjoy gazing at their own navels and hearing their own voices. But it’s also a debating forum, where legislation gets marked up and passed—where you generally have to know your stuff.
The governors in the Republican presidential race have no experience with foreign policy, and thus far seem content to substitute the GOP’s usual slate of belligerence and militarism for serious thinking.
Senators are more likely to resist this temptation. And even those that don’t can at least explain their positions.