It's more than a coincidence that the only people to actually win Presidential nominations of either party since 1984 (when former VEEP Walter Mondale was the hapless Democratic candidate) have been working office holders who still drew salaries from either state or federal government for representing the people who selected them. Holding office—facing regular decisions about spending bills and budgets, public works projects, policy planning and even executing killers—impels any candidate toward pragmatism, common sense and the American mainstream. In the midst of the 1992 presidential campaign, Governor Bill Clinton made a point of personally overseeing the execution of convicted cop killer Ricky Ray Rector, which helped Slick Willy establish credibility as a moderate while distancing himself from the soft-on-crime, anti-death-penalty image of the prior Democratic nominee, Michael Dukakis.
The current GOP field, by contrast, finds itself hindered by detachment—even alienation –from the quotidian details of governance. Gingrich resigned from Congress and the speakership 13 years ago, after losing the confidence of his colleagues. Romney decided to abandon the Massachusetts governor’s office in 2006 in order to concentrate on his presidential ambitions and, in the same year, Santorum lost a Senatorial re-election bid in a landslide of historic proportions.
Is it any wonder that when frustrated Republicans dream of some new, fresh-face candidate to rescue the party from its current doldrums, all of the individuals who figure prominently in their fantasies happen to be current office-holders, deftly handling the challenges of their ongoing responsibilities—Governors Chris Christie of New Jersey or Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin or Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.
Look at what the GOP in the House is doing right now: extending the payroll tax holiday in order to avoid another government shutdown crisis or a sharp increase in tax obligations for every American. This may not endear the likes of John Boehner and Eric Cantor to the Tea Party base, but it should reassure the broader public that will decide the election and that will—GOP leaders hope—return a Republican Majority to the House of Representatives.
The current candidates rail endlessly against a mythical "out-of-touch GOP establishment." But the only establishment that really means anything is the establishment of currently empowered officeholders, led by Congressmen and Senators and Governors who are actually far more in touch with the opinions of the constituents who regularly re-elect them than are presidential candidates who have been years away from meaningful electoral accountability. While the White House contenders focus exclusively on appealing to the small minority of Republicans who actually bother voting in party primaries (where turnout has declined decisively and disastrously), governors and members of Congress need to worry about the additional opinions of independents and even wavering Democrats who will help to fire or re-hire them in an impending election. Those same independents and dubious Dems will make the final decision on either renewing or terminating Barack Obama’s contract in November.
In a nation where we like to flatter our successful politicians as “public servants” there’s nothing dishonorable about elected leaders who actually commit themselves to serving – and pleasing – the public that pays their salaries. In the midst of an intra-party power struggle that looks increasingly remote from the concerns of every day Americans, the foundering crop of current contenders could benefit enormously from refocusing or replicating the real-world perspective on daily decision-making that incumbent office-holders most reliably provide.