America's worst governors want to be president: Jindal, Walker, Christie -- can Sam Brownback be far behind

The most popular and least effective governors all want a promotion. Let's examine their records

By Paul Rosenberg
July 2, 2015 7:45PM (UTC)
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(AP/Reuters/Charlie Riedel/Rick Wilking/Lefteris Pitarakis/Mel Evans)

With a record nine New Jersey bond downgrades on his watch, factors running up the odds against Chris Christie’s just-announced White House run go far beyond his troubles with Bridgegate and the broader stench of scandal. But he’s hardly alone in this miserable electoral state.

Perhaps the biggest lie of the 2016 election is that the GOP field this cycle is substantially stronger and more serious than in 2012. (See, for example, Larry Sabato re: Rick Santorum's "Fourth Tier" "key disadvantage":  “Harder to stand out in much stronger 2016 field.”)

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It's certainly a much bigger field, but the idea that this translates into being stronger and more serious is belied by foolishness at every turn.

Most important, the field fails precisely where it ought to be strongest—in the pool of sitting governors who've joined the race, men currently wielding executive authority, more limited, but directly analogous to that of the presidency they seek.

Previously in American history, eight sitting governors have been elected president—compared to just three sitting senators—so there's a clear historical reason to look to such candidates as credible top contenders.

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But when one looks at the GOP governors this cycle, it's starting to look more and more like a “most hated governors” club, with men like Scott Walker, Chris Christie and Bobby Jindal all polling as losers in their home states—the exact opposite of what governors are supposed to bring to the table as White House candidates.

Not only are they viewed negatively by home-state voters, all would lose their home states to Hillary Clinton in the general. Christie trailed her by 23 percent in New Jersey back in May. Walker trailed her by 12 percent in Wisconsin in April. Even in deep red Louisiana, Clinton lead Jindal 44.5 to 42 percent in a recent poll, just as she had throughout most polls in the 2014 election cycle.

Give Bernie Sanders another month or two, and he’ll be beating them all, too.

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A fourth one-time hopeful, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, saw things get so dark that he publicly abandoned his White House dreams while sweating out his reelection race last year, so no one’s been polling him, sparing him the embarrassment. But with the rest of these losers running, who knows? Perhaps he could be coaxed back into the thick of things. Sure, he'd be crazy to think he could be president. But no more crazy than any of the rest of them.

These are all guys who say crazy things. Jindal insisted there were “no go zones” ruled by Sharia law, and excluding non-Muslims throughout Europe, and specifically in England—a claim that London’s Conservative Party mayor, Boris Johnson, called “complete nonsense.”  Scott Walker claimed he’d know what to do about terrorists like ISIS, “If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world,” he said in February. Foreign policy is traditionally the great weakness of governors, but you’re supposed to try to hide the weakness, not advertise it.

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It’s been a rough ride for all three of these White House wannabes, who once seemed so hopeful. Jindal's star once shone so bright that he was chosen to respond to Barack Obama's State of the Union in 2009. He flopped badly, coming off like a junior high class treasurer wannabe, and no sane political analyst has given him a second thought since then, even though he cruised to reelection easily, a clear reminder that being a governor doesn't necessarily mean that much in the grand scheme of things. More recently, a couple of March polls found him at 27 and 28 percent approval in the state. "If your own residents don't like you, how can you expect the residents of the United States to like you?" political scientist Joshua Stockley commented to USA Today. Things have only gotten worse since then, as the state’s budget “resolution” turned into a fiasco.

Chris Christie was once the GOP's great hope. Sure, he enjoyed yelling at, belittling and bullying people. But, so what? He held the keys to winning in blue states. He even got Bruce Springsteen to stop hating his guts in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. But then came Bridgegate. However he's tried to shift the blame, he's no longer seen as a strong, competent leader. “I delegate enormous authority to my staff," he said in his marathon “it wasn't me” press conference, after which MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell summarized, “There are a lot of things in this press conference today that you could cut 30 second ads on, or certainly talking points for debates.... There's a lot of very bad admissions for an executive in that press conference.”

That sense has certainly stuck to Christie ever since. This was reflected in a May 5 New Jersey Monmouth poll, which found Christie trailing Hillary Clinton 53 to 30 percent among registered voters, while also trailing his fellow Republicans Jeb Bush and Scott Walker as a preferred candidate. “The message from New Jersey voters seems to be as simple as ABC – anybody but Christie,” Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute said.

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Compared to Christie and Jindal, Wisconsin's Scott Walker has lead a charmed life. The indictment of six close aides and associates on 15 felony counts has barely registered with the national media, in stark contrast with Christie's fate with Bridgegate. His utter failure to produce the 250,000 new jobs he promised seems to have left barely a mark, even though he made just 55 percent of that goal. Numerous other gaffes and fiascos have failed to register with most in the press. Indeed, from late April to mid-May this year, Walker actually led the GOP field in Huffington Post's Pollster average, eclipsing the purported “front-runner,” Jeb Bush. But reality seems to be catching up with Walker, at least a little bit. He's recently fallen to fifth place in the Pollster average, behind Bush, Trump, Carson and Rubio. Moreover, back when he was still hot, nationally, on April 17, a Marquette Law School Poll found his approval rating falling to 41 percent vs. 56 percent disapprove, while trailing Hillary Clinton 52-40, among other negative signs, including 78 percent opposed to Walker’s proposal to cut $127 million from K-12 schools, which Marquette pollster Charles Franklin called an “eye-catching level of opinion.”

Compared to these governors, still in the White House hunt, Brownback's probably feeling pretty good. That happens sometimes, when you stop beating your head against a brick wall. But everyone else seems to love doing it so much, can Brownback really stay away?

To really understand how inept and unpopular these governors are, we need to consider what historically makes a governor attractive as a presidential candidate. Only then can we hope to grasp why these men are failing so miserably. Arguably the four most important things for a governor with White House dreams are his state's economy, his state's budget, his role in facing extraordinary challenges, and, finally, the significance of his state. Most governors who became president came from large, populous states—Grover Cleveland, and FDR from New York, Rutherford Hayes and William McKinley from Ohio, and George W. Bush from Texas. Three came from less populous states, but went against type by representing states the other party might have normally carried—Woodrow Wilson from New Jersey, Bill Clinton from Arkansas and Jimmy Carter from Georgia.

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Chris Christie clearly saw this last category as his meal ticket, with the growing dominance of the blue state block, and the erosion of safe red states like Florida, North Carolina and Virginia—all swing states or worse now for Republicans. This strategic angle seemed to be working for Christie, before the Bridgegate scandal exploded. But Bridgegate only open the doors for a sea of other troubles, both old and new, which have left Christie less than a long-shot, more as a figure of derision. Scott Walker's 2010 win in Wisconsin put him into the same general category, and he's somehow managed to be far less damaged by his own close connection with indicted staffers, referred to above. But he's come up short on all the other requirements—a slow-growing state economy, a troubled budget, and the only noteworthy crises he's weathered have been those of his own creation. Jindal, by comparison, does not come from a state like any that's launched a successful White House bid before, and he's swimming in troubles he only seems to have made worse. The same could be said for Brownback—yet another reason why his withdrawal seemed to make sense.

Let’s start with the basics—how well their states have done in recovering from the Great Recession, both in comparison with the nation as a whole, and with states in their region. Since he’s just announced, let’s start with Chris Christie. The Northeast has recovered more slowly than the nation as a whole, but even within that region, New Jersey's recovery has been anemic. Since Christie took office, job growth in the state has been 54 percent of the national rate, and 85 percent of the rate for the Northeast. Sub-par at best.

The South has recovered faster than most of country, and Louisiana is a prime oil state. But since Obama took office in the depths of the recession, Louisiana under Jindal has added jobs a whopping 23 percent slower than the South as a whole. Better than Christie, but nothing to get excited about.

In the Midwest, Scott Walker's Wisconsin has added jobs at just under 70 percent of the national rate since he took office.  Then, in early June, a national survey revealed that Wisconsin ranked dead last in business start-up activity. Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s job-creation agency has become essentially non-functional in rural northern counties where it’s needed most. We’ve already noted that he missed his promise of adding 250,000 jobs. But these figures and additional stories make it clear just how disappointing his record really is. But, at least this looks good compared to Sam Brownback!

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Shifting focus from state economies to state budgets, the picture doesn’t get much better. As already mentioned, Chris Christie has managed to produce a record nine credit downgrades for New Jersey, but that’s not all: The sorry state of New Jersey’s economy and public financing system has trickled down to damage the credit of New Jersey cities as well. In January, Moody’s drastically downgraded Atlantic City’s bond rating—by six notches. Then, in late May, NJ.com reported a much broader pattern of trouble:

The city of Newark—its finances already under state control—has been hit by a major credit downgrade relegating some of its outstanding debt to junk bond status.

The move targeting the state's largest city comes amid growing questions by Wall Street over the financial strength of at least five other struggling municipalities—including Atlantic City, Paterson, Union City, Asbury Park and Kearny—in the wake of New Jersey's own fiscal troubles.

The story went on to say that all the cities named had been hit with downgrades.

By this measure, at least, none of the other governors mentioned comes close to matching this level of financial distress. Even Kansas—a notorious basket case—only faced two bond downgrades in 2014, one from Moody’s one from S&P. But that hardly means their records are anything to crow about.

Consider Scott Walker, whose economic record has not been talked about that much. He’s avoided bond downgrade—but Wisconsin has missed making over $100 million payments on its debt. Early this year, Christopher Flavelle wrote an overview of Walker’s economic record, tellingly titled “Scott Walker's Lagging Indicators.” What he pointed out about state finances and bond ratings was typical of Walker’s record overall:

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[S]tate tax revenue increased just 4 percent between the first quarter of 2011 and the third quarter of last year, compared with a 20 percent increase for the median state. So the news this month that Wisconsin was skipping a scheduled $108 million debt payment, owing to an unexpected budget shortfall, only underlined a trend that's been years in the making. Of the 40 states with general-obligation bonds, 25 have credit ratings from Moody's that are better than Wisconsin's.

But then there’s the disconnect from any consequences that Walker has enjoyed:

Maybe the most interesting thing about Walker's economic record is the absence of any noticeable impact on his as-yet-unannounced presidential campaign. That suggests that party leaders are more interested in Walker's actions than their consequences. Walker has built his profile by going after big conservative targets --collective bargaining for public-sector unions,  school spending, university professors.

Those fights are interesting, but they don't reveal much about Walker's ability to improve the living standards of the people he represents. The data does, and it shows that measured by relative economic outcomes, Walker's tenure falls somewhere between lackluster and a failure.

As long as Walker is a governor with a big microphone—and wealthy backers—he can pull this sort of snow job off, at least in some quarters. But when other candidates start sparring with him, sooner or later, reality will start to take its toll.

Jindal and Brownback’s budget catastrophes were even worse, as I explained here recently. But the logic trapping all these governors is ultimately the same. Until the 1970s, conservative budget principles meant balancing budgets—which worked out rather well for governors, since states generally require balanced budgets as a matter of law. But then came the rise of greed-is-good, trickle-down, voodoo economics. Arhurt Laffer was the purported economist, Jude Wanniski the evangelist/carney barker/cheerleader. Wanniski proposed the “Two-Santa Claus Theory of the political economy,” that each party “must be a different kind of Santa Claus”:

The Democrats, the party of income redistribution, are best suited for the role of Spending Santa Claus. The Republicans, traditionally the party of income growth, should be the Santa Claus of Tax Reduction. It has been the failure of the GOP to stick to this traditional role that has caused much of the nation’s economic misery.

Of course Laffer and Wanniski were completely wrong. Government spending had long gone hand-in-hand with income growth. In 1876, the conservative German economist Adolph Wagner propounded “Wagner's Law” that the development of an industrial economy [which obviously raises incomes] is accompanied by an increased share of public expenditure from the gross national product. Hence, individual income and state spending increase together. This had been observed for other countries, and was certainly the case for Post WWII America through the 1970s. But Laffer and Wanniski thought that tax cuts could both pay for themselves, and promote increased individual income growth. Laffer was personally involved in Brownback’s failed experiment (paid $75,000 for his troubles), but his spirit lives in every Tea Party Republican’s heart.

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Now, nearly 40 years later it's clear they were wrong on both counts. America's debt/GDP ratio had decreased during every four-year presidential term since World War II, except for a slight increase under Nixon/Ford, before Reagan and Bush sent it skyrocketing upward. Clinton brought the debt ratio down again, but George W. Bush sent it skyrocketing upward again. Supply-side tax-cutting balloons the deficit, that's all there is to it. At the same time, it reinforces highly unequal income gains, in sharp contrast to the broad income gains from 1947 through 1973. But national politics is complicated and confusing—deliberately so, with armies of propagandists keeping things that way. It's both smaller and simpler on the state-level scale—and there are less powerful propaganda corps involved. Hence, governors who pursue foolish policies are in for a very rough ride. And that's exactly what so many presidential wannabes have been finding out these past few years.

Although the national media reaction to  Jindal joining the race was more along the lines of befuddled bemusement, back home nobody much is laughing. Louisiana music legend Buckwheat Zydeco tweeted, “Using our music is not cool at all #BobbyJindal,” adding, “@SenSanders using our 'Make A Change' to make his announcement is tres bien!” And that's a fair gauge of how most Louisianans feel these days.

A May poll by Southern Media & Opinion Research found Jindal with an abysmal 31.8 percent job approval rating, compared to 42.1 percent approval for President Obama, whose unpopularity in the state is supposedly toxic. Even worse, the difference was concentrated in the two men's "excellent" job ratings: 4.6 percent for Jindal, 14.4 percent for Obama. SMOR also noted that “Jindal’s latest decline [from 40.9 percent positive in December 2014] comes primarily from his Republican base. Republican voter’s barely gave him a higher positive job ratings with 53.5 percent than negative 44.1 percent.” And that was before the farcical, but brutal end to the budget struggle.

Reporting from Jindal's campaign announcement event, the Advocate's Stephanie Grace observed:

During the recent legislative session, Democrats and Republicans alike openly groused about having to close a $1.6 billion budget hole, all while protecting Jindal's presidential ambitions by complying with what they saw as ridiculous demands by the Washington group Americans for Tax Reform. Yet he apparently emerged with a few friendships intact....

Anyway, what budget crisis? In a morning briefing for reporters covering the announcement, Jindal's consultants declared the point moot. On Message, Inc. partners Curt Anderson and Timmy Teepell repeated the administration line that Jindal signed his eighth balanced budget in eight years without raising taxes -- a point that just about everyone else disputes. "This is over now," Anderson said.

Well, maybe for Jindal, but certainly not for the next governor and Legislature, who will start their terms facing an immediate hole.

As Louisiana journalist and history Robert Mann observed:

Simply put, almost every problem Jindal inherited when he became governor is worse or no better. Louisiana remains among the worst states for poverty, literacy, life expectancy, chronic disease, AIDS, violent crime, incarceration rate and income inequality.

On the rare occasion he spent the day in Louisiana, Jindal did little or nothing about these issues. From the start, his operation was little more than a presidential campaign disguised as a governor's office. And his constituents noticed. Perhaps that's why he's less popular here than President Obama.

Indeed, the most upbeat analysis I could find of the budget fiasco was an AP story by Melinda Deslatte, focused on how the experience would motivate future reforms, so that Louisiana never had to repeat anything similar again.

But the GOP presidential primary is all about keeping folks insulated from reality—voters, journalists, everyone. Which brings us back to the subject of Chris Christie, and why there’s still a fantasy world in which his candidacy can still survive  True, Christie's national popularity numbers have been underwater since early 2014, when the Bridgegate scandal hit, with Christie's Huffington Post Pollster average now at 27.3 percent favorable, 50.4 percent unfavorable, as of June 26. But the home crowd is equally tough. A May 20 Quinnipiac poll found him with his lowest job approval numbers ever, disapproving of his job performance 56 - 38 percent. From the press release:

"Did Gov. Christopher Christie cause Bridgegate? Most voters say no. Did he know about it? Most think he did," said Quinnipiac University Poll Assistant Director Maurice Carroll.

"The governor's job approval hits a new low and voters think his presidential ambitions are distracting him from his day job. Besides, they don't think he'd be a good president."

It went on to say, "he gets negative ratings on other character issues and on handling important issues." These include:

41/52 percent that he is honest and trustworthy;

41/56 percent that he cares about their needs and problems;

34/57 percent approval for his handling of the economy and jobs;

34/56 percent for handling education;

32/59 percent for handling the state budget.

As for Christie's presidential ambitions, the poll offered little hope there, either:

New Jersey voters say 65/29 percent that Gov. Christie would not make a good president, and voters say 64/33 percent that he should not run for president.

The presidential race is distracting him from his job in Trenton, voters say 55/38 percent. If he does run for president, he should resign, voters say 70/27 percent.

There was a time when Christie's candidacy promised to bring some gritty, hard-edged realism to the race. Now, his campaign is running on pure fantasy. It's his only play left. But I still don't understand why Sam Brownback isn't gearing up to run.


Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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Bobby Jindal Chris Christie Editor's Picks Elections 2016 Sam Brownback Scott Walker