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Governors and the Federal Cabinet

Posted at 2:20 pm February 15, 2016, in 2016 Election, U.S. Governors

President Barack Obama with his first cabinet

Enrollment in the class of governors who have “suspended” their 2016 presidential races has now grown to nine. This includes two sitting governors – Chris Christie (NJ) who has two more years in his final term and Scott Walker (WI) who faces no term limits, and seven former governors – Lincoln Chafee (RI), Jim Gilmore (VA), Mike Huckabee (AR), Bobby Jindal (LA), Martin O’Malley (MD), George Pataki (NY) and Rick Perry (TX).

To what will they aspire to next? Will they be content just to leave the national stage, perhaps each tacking a lawn sign to the wall of their garage to remind them of what might have been? Or will at least some of them start to dream of a vice presidential nomination or cabinet post in the next administration? After all, aren’t the skills of a state’s chief executive similar to those required of the head of a major part of the federal government?

Even if the governors themselves do not find those positions alluring, most will find their actions between now and November interpreted in that light. Was their eventual endorsement of the party nominee delivered with apparently sincere enthusiasm? Did it come at a particularly helpful moment? Are they being active surrogate speakers or fundraisers? And pundits will be examining the actions of Governors Christie and Walker to gauge the extent to which their actions in their home states during the rest of 2016 seem more addressed to a national than local audience.

The vice presidency, almost by definition, is first prize for a runner-up, but it is a long shot and in modern times not one often offered to a governor. During the entire 20th century, only four governors were nominated: Thomas Marshall of Indiana elected with Woodrow Wilson in 1912 and 1916; Calvin Coolidge from Massachusetts defeated with James Cox four years later, California’s Earl Warren who lost with Thomas Dewey in 1948; and Spiro Agnew from Maryland, who was elected twice with Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972. Since then, former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller was elevated to the post by President Gerald Ford in 1974 but not chosen for the re-election ticket, and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was John McCain’s running mate in 2008.

The cabinet, in contrast, is at least technically large enough to hold all nine Republican and two Democratic present or former governors who launched presidential campaigns during 2015, but here too history suggests that few, if any, will be chosen.

The 11 most recent presidents – Eisenhower through Obama – have had a total of 339 cabinet secretaries but only 39 of the people they chose had prior experience as governors. Each president chose an average of fewer than four, ranging from former Texas Governor George W. Bush, who tapped nine, to former Texas Senator Lyndon Johnson, who named none (although he did retain three former governors President Kennedy had appointed).

It is noteworthy that Bush’s attraction to the pool of his former colleagues was not shared by the other Presidents who themselves had been governors, with President Carter choosing four (albeit in only term), President Reagan three, and President Clinton two.

Surveying the cabinet prospects for the eight present and former governors to enter and leave (or suspend their participation in) the 2016 presidential race so far, three – Christie (NJ), Perry (TX) and Walker (WI) – would be the second governor of their state to enter the cabinet since 1953. The others who have ended their campaigns – Chafee (RI), Gilmore (VA), Huckabee (AR), Jindal (LA), O’Malley (MD) and Pataki (NY) – would be the first.

Notwithstanding geography, for any of the governors who launched ultimately unsuccessful campaigns for a 2016 presidential nomination who are interviewed for the cabinet, which post(s) should they seek? The ones in which they have the greatest expertise and interest would be a good place to start. After that, though, they might want to make sure the Departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, or Interior are on their list. Fully 16 of the 39 cabinet slots given to governors since the Eisenhower administration were in one of those three agencies.

One final note in this first entry for the Center on the American Governor blog: only seven of the 39 governors to serve in the cabinet had run for president. So, the odds are small that any of the governors to run for president this time will wind up in the cabinet. But, as is so often true in politics – and as 2016 so far is demonstrating vividly – anything can happen.

For detailed tables and other information about governors and the federal cabinet, click here.

-John Weingart