Former Texas governor Rick Perry is gearing up for another presidential run and recently fired a shot across the bow of some of his competitors. In an interview with The Weekly Standard, Perry said that while he had “great respect” for senators Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul, they were not ready to be president:
I’ve had more than one individual say, “You know what, if you want to be the president of the United States, you ought to go back to your home state and be the governor and get that executive experience before you go lead this country.”
Perry’s record as governor of the Lone Star State is impressive. During his tenure, Texas was an economic dynamo while the rest of the country lagged behind. Republican voters will no doubt give him a careful look this time around.
Regardless, his suggestion is wrong. There is no correlation between presidential greatness and professional background.
Presidents are almost always governors, senators, or generals. We have seen good and bad versions of each. Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter were both governors; the former had an intuitive feel for the demands of the office, while the latter was out of his depth from day one. Similarly, Lyndon Johnson was a former senator who was incredibly effective at getting Congress to do what he wanted, while John F. Kennedy’s domestic program mostly stalled. George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower demonstrated a keen understanding of the political process, while Andrew Jackson and Zachary Taylor were capricious and imperial. Ulysses S. Grant was arguably the single greatest military commander this country has ever known, yet he was an inartful president.
Moreover, the country has had several polymath presidents who turned out to be disappointments. John Adams, James Monroe, Herbert Hoover, and George H. W. Bush had done a bit of everything by the time they became president. And yet none is in the top tier. Few men have been as qualified for the job as Richard Nixon, who was forced to resign because of Watergate. On the other hand, nobody has ever been elected president with as slender a résumé as Abraham Lincoln’s; nevertheless, he is widely regarded as America’s finest leader.
Political scientists have tried to explain such incongruity, but few explanations are satisfying. In the 1970s, James David Barber offered a psychological account of presidential greatness, but his approach was too reductionist and has been abandoned. More recently, Stephen Skowronek has argued that a president’s position in the broader political cycle is crucial. Yet like most analyses built on the concept of “political realignments,” this analysis falls prey to the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc.
Presidential greatness is such a mystery because, while it depends on some predictable factors like the size of a congressional majority, a necessary ingredient is prudence. This ineffable quality enables a leader to make the best determination in light of the practical constraints he faces. Edmund Burke wrote:
Nothing universal can be rationally affirmed on any moral, or any political subject. Pure metaphysical abstraction does not belong to these matters. The lines of morality are not like the ideal lines of mathematics. They are broad and deep as well as long. They admit of exceptions; they demand modifications. These exceptions and modifications are not made by the process of logic, but by the rules of prudence. Prudence is not only the first in rank of the virtues political and moral, but she is the director, the regulator, the standard of them all. Metaphysics cannot live without definition; but prudence is cautious how she defines.
Prudence is the essential virtue of presidential greatness. It is the bridge that connects the unlimited expectations we have of the president to the slender formal powers we have granted him.
Today, we expect the president to guide Congress, helm a political party, speak for the nation, oversee the bureaucracy, grow the economy, command the military, and manage our international affairs. In short, we want him to be a king in the mold of the Tudor monarchs. Yet our Founding Fathers were greatly influenced by the Glorious Revolution, which saw Englishmen hamstring their sovereign after repeated abuses by Stuart kings. In fact, there was a faction at the Constitutional Convention that did not even want executive authority embodied in a single person, so fearful were they of monarchism. A compromise produced the circumscribed magistrate outlined in Article II, whom presidential historian Richard Neustadt called a glorified clerk.