What presidential debates teach us
Listening to debates among presidential primary candidates invariably reminds me of the 1974 Democratic primary for New York governor. To set the scene: In November of 1973, Republican Nelson Rockefeller, four times elected chief executive of the Empire State who would later be chosen by President Gerald R. Ford to become the nation’s 41st vice president, resigned his governorship.
In short order, New York Democratic leaders — both regulars and reformers — confident they could win the governorship after a generation in the wilderness, made Howard J. Samuels, a self-made millionaire and the president of the New York City Off-Track Betting Corp., their consensus choice for governor. But long-shot Democratic Brooklyn Rep. Hugh Carey would upset Samuels and the Democratic leadership in that Watergate election year with a memorable campaign slogan crafted by Carey’s campaign consultant, David Garth: “This year, before they tell you what they want to do, make them show you what they’ve done.”
Let history show that Gov. Carey would do an awful lot. He would later be hailed by both Republicans and Democrats for bold leadership. Faced with a fiscal catastrophe when New York City came within hours of being forced to file for bankruptcy, he successfully pulled both the city and the state back from the brink of imminent fiscal disaster. Under Gov. Carey, the solvency of New York was assured.
What does this have to do with presidential debates, you rightly ask? Quite simply, being a governor is a demanding job with enormous responsibilities for writing and passing a state budget and collecting the tax monies to keep the state’s schools, colleges, roads, parks, hospitals, prisons and government itself open and working successfully. When any one of those state responsibilities is not met or is done poorly, the governor is ultimately accountable. A successful governor cannot live in an ideological silo where she talks only to folks who agree with her. No, to be a successful governor and leader, you have to be able to reach across the aisle to listen and work with those on the other side to forge a compromise.
It should not surprise us that many great U.S. presidents had first been governors of their states: Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, to name a few, as well as two recent two-term chief executives who left office after eight years with a 65 percent positive job-approval rating, Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican Ronald Reagan.
Contrast the tough job of governor with that of being a U.S. senator: Instead of making tough decisions for which you will be held liable, you make tough speeches, and because you’re just one of 100, you only have to answer for your own vote. Senators issue press releases, hold hearings, make speeches and have office staffs of a few dozen. Governors appoint hundreds of individuals — anyone of whom can, by personal malfeasance or illegality, create a political scandal for the governor. If there’s a prison break or a natural disaster, Americans don’t look to their senator; they demand an answer from their governor.
That’s why when I hear all the master plans and creative schemes offered by presidential candidates who are U.S. senators, I remember Gov. Hugh Carey and think, “This year before they tell you what they want to do, make them show you what they’ve done.”
Mark Shields is a Creators Syndicate columnist.