In memory of Alan Rosenthal
In How Governors Built the Modern American Presidency (Ambar 2012), I argued that progressive-era governors from the industrial Northeast played a critical role in transforming the character of the presidency. But my research and thesis were largely restricted to examining how the innovative features of state executive behavior were transferred to the White House in the early 1900s. Now, in thinking beyond that time frame and argument, my conclusions about the presidency have opened a new window into understanding how the American republic has changed over the last 100 years. In this article, I argue that the two major shifts in twentieth-century American politics--toward and then away from big government--were both driven by former governors in the White House. As outsiders, governor-presidents were poised to alter the direction of the national government in ways that Washington insiders were not. Indeed, understanding the two dominant and opposing forces in our national politics since 1900 requires understanding not only how governors built the modern presidency; it also requires understanding how they were the key actors in building first the progressive state and then, in turn, its conservative successor. In the brief space of an article, I can only focus on a few elements of what is a very big and complex story about the second of these transformations.
The progressive thinker and editor Herbert Croly came the closest to grasping the implications of the first wave of gubernatorial leadership in both the states and in the White House. "Wherever public opinion has been vigorously demanding the adoption of a progressive state policy, the agent to which it has turned for carrying out that policy has been a candidate for governor." Croly wrote those words nearly 100 years ago in Progressive Democracy after having witnessed a series of powerful governors administering progressive reforms. By 1914, he had seen a number of important, but little-remarked-upon political firsts concerning governors and presidential politics. As I noted in How Governors Built the Modern American Presidency, 1876 marked the first time former governors opposed one another in a presidential election (Ambar 2012). Twenty years later, a governor was elected to succeed another governor-president in the White House--another first in U.S. political history. By 1914, Croly was writing about the rise and importance of governors in national politics like few of his contemporaries. Presidents Rutherford Hayes, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt (TR)--and then Woodrow Wilson--were all part of an unprecedented line of former governors pushing varying degrees of reform as presidents in Washington. And each did so, it seemed to Croly, with an increasing indifference to traditional strictures against the abuse of executive power. "At the present time a Democratic President [Wilson] and a Democratic Governor [the progressive Martin H. Glynn] of the most populous American state are frankly assuming the political leadership of their respective constituencies," he observed, "without having incurred up to date any effective resistance or any particular obliquy" (Croly 1914, 296).
It was a welcome sign to Croly that governors were at the heart of administering progressive change in both Washington and in the states. But Croly was also astute in noticing the regional character of this change in citing the New York governorship as an example of active, reform-oriented governance. From as far back as Samuel J. Tilden's governorship, New Yorkers (and later New Jerseyans for a time) had developed a Hudson brand of progressivism marked by challenges to legislative authority, innovations in executive-press relations, and administrative expansion. (Ambar 2012) Croly's hope was that western states, such as Oregon (Croly 1914, 297), might advance the Hudson mix of popular executive leadership with progressive reform. He likewise deemed it a foregone conclusion that a progressive national agenda must reject traditional notions of passive executive authority. In speaking of the rise of the progressive governors of his day, Croly downplayed their radical, and by some accounts, unconstitutional practices. "These executives," he said, "have usually been accused of usurpation of power, but the accusation has not apparently had any practical effect" (Croly 1914, 296).
Croly's vision--enhanced by the marriage of progressivism with the powers of the modern presidency--was forwarded by the New Deal coalition and liberal state that made its decades' long dominance in American politics possible. From the early part of the twentieth century until its last quarter, big government, premised upon the protections afforded to large segments of the American population by the progressive state, became the nation's prevailing political philosophy. Because that victory was accompanied by receding gubernatorial power in national elections, the significance of the first cluster of governor-presidents in the White House went largely unnoticed (Ambar 2012). By 1959, the pollster Lou Harris was writing about the long odds against governors making it to the Oval Office (Harris 1959). The progressive outsiders that had transformed the nature of national politics in the direction of big government had suddenly gone silent. It is only now, when the familiar set of circumstances that evidenced the rise of Hudson progressive governors have been replicated by conservatives from the Sunbelt, that we can more fully understand the two most significant transformations in American politics in living memory. Put simply, the two major transformations of government witnessed over the course of the last century were the work of governors transferred to the White House. The Sunbelt governors, like other "modern" presidents, employed the same array of executive techniques as their Hudson forebears but now for opposite agendas.
The Hudson and Sunbelt Executive Eras in Contrast
The United States did not elect a sitting governor as president until 1876. It was the beginning of a period of gubernatorial dominance in presidential politics. The reform impulse that empowered governor-presidents like TR, Wilson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), had its antecedents in the 1880s and 1890s (Dinan 2006; Schlesinger 2003), and had a variety of motivations (McCormick, 1981). Populism and Progressivism were in their own ways responses to industrial capitalism's perceived undue influence over democratic institutions and life (Sanders 1999). State legislatures and Congress were seen as highly corruptible, and political parties were seen as beholden to "machine" bosses and big corporations. Progressives turned to governors first, and then presidents, as agents for instituting political change.
The influence of progressive governors such as TR, Wilson, Robert M. LaFoilette, and Hiram Johnson spoke to the national character of the reform impulse, but the Hudson form of progressivism was particularly salient. New York's shared harbor with New Jersey had long been a source of contention between the two states, but it was also a source of mutual influence in terms of patronage opportunities, with New York's Custom House as the biggest prize (Skowronek 1982). The geopolitical power afforded by the commercial significance of the Hudson River, rapid urbanization, and white ethnic immigration made the industrialization of the region a source of considerable economic expansion but also one subject to corruption and social inequality. Hudson progressive governors were elected to tackle these problems, and to do so by affirming the right of government to expand its reach and protective powers against the undemocratic forces of big business and crooked legislators. From the time of Tilden's governorship in New York and beyond (Ambar 2012), Hudson governors were held up by the press as either exemplars or betrayers of the democratic reform so coveted by the region's voters. It was the most skillful governors--Tilden, Cleveland, Roosevelt, Wilson, Hughes, Alfred E. Smith, and FDR--who built a line of "honest" and "outsider" credibility in their campaigns both in their respective states and toward election to the White House. The economic panics and scandals (1873, 1876, 1877, and 1893) of the period, along with uneven economic growth (Bensel 2000) heightened the need for "clean" outsider candidates best suited to change the politics in Washington. In time, these Hudson progressive governors led the way in not only advancing new forms of executive behavior among presidents; they also established the theoretical and policy commitments that made big government not only acceptable but desirable as well. TR's Square Deal, Wilson's New Freedom, and FDR's New Deal all owed much, if not all, of their progressive presidential policy achievements to their prior executive experiences as governor--and those they imbibed from their statehouse contemporaries (Ambar 2012).
While these large-scale federal policy commitments went largely unchallenged until Ronald Reagan's election to the White House in 1980 (Baer 2000), fissures in the liberal politics of the early twentieth century were showing earlier. In addition, old-style conservative objections to expansive presidential power ceased, by the time of Richard Nixon, to stand as ideological impediments to liberalism's adversaries; conservatives now were as eager as liberals to use the tools of the modern presidency for their own ends. Their attempted reversals of big government liberalism focused on limiting the overall size and scope of the government and returning a greater share of authority to the states.
Whereas progressive governor-presidents, especially FDR, had empowered unions, their conservative critics sought to weaken organized labor. One of the signal victories of progressivism, passage of the Wagner Act in 1935, was chipped...