The first nationally televised Presidential debates for both Democrats and Republicans highlighted a revealing distinction between the field of candidates for each of the two parties.
While superficial observers might focus on the greater diversity of the Democratic contenders (with one female, one black, and one Latino among them), the eight Dems and ten GOP’ers still showed a similarly disproportionate domination of dark-suited, white, middle-aged males – with a single seventy-something curmudgeon (John McCain for the GOP, Mike Gravel for the Dems) offering some feisty seasoning.
The most significant gap between the Democrats on the one hand and the Republicans on the other actually involved the nature of their political experience, not their ethnicity or age. All eight Democratic contenders have served in the United States Congress – and an amazing six of the eight are either current or former members of the US Senate. Only one of the Dems (Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico) has held a significant administrative office, though some thirty years ago Congressman Dennis Kucinich served a disastrous two years as the “boy mayor” of Cleveland.
On the Republican side, in dramatic contrast, four of the candidates (Romney, Jim Gilmore, Tommy Thompson, Mike Huckabee) have served as governors, and frontrunner Rudy Giuliani made his reputation as mayor of the nation’s largest city. While all the Democrats boasted Congressional experience, only half of the GOP contenders ever served in either House of the US Congress
These differences in background reflect far more than curious coincidence: they actually illuminate some of the profound differences in the way the two parties see the purpose and nature of politics.
In all of the elections of the last twenty-four years, among Presidential and Vice Presidential nominees the Republican Party put a consistently higher premium on administrative experience. Among the twelve GOP nominees for the two top offices in that period (since 1984), seven had previously served as governors or heads of federal cabinet-level departments; for the Democrats, the corresponding figure was three out of twelve (with nine candidates out of Congress).
These contrasting choices for ticket toppers reflect important contrasts in governing philosophy for the two big parties. Republicans prefer governors and cabinet members because they see the job of the President as primarily administrative: to respond to crisis, to tame (and, ideally, to cut back) the federal bureaucracy and, generally, to run the government efficiently enough that it doesn’t interfere unduly with the important business of family and commercial life. Because of the traditional Republican emphasis on efficient administration, it was only with distinct hints of incompetence in handling Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq war that some of the loyal GOP supporters of President Bush began to turn away from him.
Democrats, by contrast, view government as a powerful change agent, not a threat to privacy or prosperity. They prefer current and former legislators as their nominees because Congress remains branch of government that changes laws and thereby alters reality. The Democrats rally to Presidents and candidates who promise ambitious programs (“New Deal,” “New Frontier,” “Bridge to the 21st Century”) that use governmental initiatives to address problems, while GOP’ers long for a deft administrator who keeps the nation safe and secure while preventing the government from intruding too much in our lives.
Democrats also maintain a far more benign view of Washington, D.C. than do Republicans, so they more readily embrace politicians who have spent their whole political careers in the nation’s capital. The candidates on-stage for the recent Democratic debate in South Carolina represented a combined total of more than 150 years of Congressional experience.
Republicans, on the other hand, look askance at federal power and often turn to “outsiders” who honed their leadership skills in state capitals like Sacramento or Austin, and come to D.C. to “clean it up” rather than to launch new programs. Conservatives may view all government as a necessary evil, but tend to see state and local governments as more necessary and less evil than the federal bureaucracy. Many Republicans want to eliminate cabinet departments like the Department of Education not because they don’t support public education, but because they want it controlled and funded and operated at the local and state level.
In the upcoming election, the two parties will probably select nominees who re-enforce their respective identity as “The Senator Party” and “The Governor Party.” Democrats will almost certainly select a legislator to head the ticket (Clinton or Obama or Edwards) while Republicans will most likely turn to an administrator (Giuliani or Romney--- though McCain remains a possibility despite his exclusively Congressional background).
The people will ultimately make their choice based on the usual factors of personality and promises but they will also do some soul searching as to what they want from the next president. If they feel basically optimistic about their own lives and want a federal government that’s better run, but not fundamentally different or bigger, they will turn once more to the “Governor Party” – the Republicans. If, however, they’re convinced that they’re in personal peril, threatened by out-of-control economic and international forces that require aggressive governmental initiatives to counteract them, they will probably choose “The Senator Party.”
The contrasting approaches remain inscribed on the two parties’ partisan DNA and also determine very different choices as to their candidates.