In the New York Times on July 27, 2008, columnist Patrick Healey talked about the presidential race: "An Exclusive Club Gets Included." The premise is that senators are now being seen as attractive, viable presidential candidates, unlike in previous runs when the pool of presidential candidates was almost exclusively drawn from governors, vice presidents, and generals. It is true that either Senator McCain or Senator Obama will be only the third president in history to go directly from the Senate to the White House.
Why are US senators now more attractive to the electorate to be president? Presumably the voters are looking for the opposite of the current administration's approach to governing. They want a president who can show flexibility, not rigidity, an ability to work well with others "across the aisle," be less divisive, not go-it-alone, accomplish more through compromise, and less ideological stubbornness. No senator can go it alone in the Senate. He or she has to reach out and bring others along to get the votes needed to pass legislation. "Wanted, dead or alive" just doesn't work in the Senate.
Flexibility, adjusting to new facts, listening, adapting are more likely to be traits we seek since we have seen the damage done by a leader who does not have those traits. And a senator, by nature of the job, will have likely honed those skills. It appears that voters are willing to let go of the need for an experienced executive who has run a government, worked within a budget, and had a complex organization to deal with. Few senators will have had those executive experiences. Yet, I believe the best president should have both of those sets of experiences -- senatorial and executive. I believe we can find both of those traits in a few atypical governors.
Mr. Healy suggested that the typical governor does not have foreign policy experience. A few atypical ones do have that. He is missing some presidential candidates in our midst who, by virtue of their life experiences, actually have the learned traits of successful senators: flexibility, working across the aisle, listening well, as well as the experience that comes from running large governments: handling crisis, juggling to meet budgets, and making the necessary trade-offs.
To me, women governors (and other "minorities") are more likely to possess the adaptive skills that senators have to acquire: listening, consensus, compromise, bringing others along. At the same time, women governors also possess needed executive branch experience.
Why women? Because -- as Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, taught me -- women as leaders will often have survival skills they have learned early on, including: listening, observing, adapting, being inclusive and bringing outsiders to the table. Mary Robinson considers these traits as representative of the historically outsider groups. They are essential for survival if, as a leader, one is working as an outsider and not as a member of the historically dominant power group. Women and other outsider groups see the world slightly differently than those who have always had the central power roles.
It should surprise no one that Senator Obama has been observed to be a good listener. He often speaks about ensuring that the playing field is leveled. As a member of the 'minority' or historically non-dominant group, he learned long ago to observe closely those in power, to figure out ways to adopt multiple styles, to survive and thrive as a black man in a predominantly white society. The African American minister, T.D. Jakes, said: "A white man with a PhD knows less about a black man than a black man with a GED knows about a white man." Women also develop those skills. As a woman professional poker player once said, "we can read the men so easily in a card game -- we have been doing it since high school."
Anyone who hasn't had the majority experience has learned more diverse ways of thinking and handling the world. Governor Paterson, the new Governor of New York after Eliot Spitzer, is legally blind. One of his acts as a governor was to shift the font size of the New York State website. You can change the print size to larger print if needed. Most of us, not visually impaired, could have sat on a desert island for 10 years and not thought of that. But Governor Paterson lives in that world.
Women, like other non-dominant groups, learned those "senatorial" skills early and women governors bring them when they make it to high office. The traits that are ascribed as positive, that senators have and we now seek, are also traits that women use to make it in any leadership position.
And the foreign policy experience? This is not limited to women, but in today's world, certain states' leaders must be foreign policy experts.
A few examples of highly successful women governors who act both like senators and executives:
Kathleen Sibelius-Kansas. A remarkably popular Democrat in a conservative state dominated by Republicans. She gets strong marks from both sides of the aisle because she has clearly developed the senatorial skills that bring the opposition to the table and knows that to get anything done she will have to show flexibility and share power.
Janet Napolitano-Arizona. A Republican legislature, two Republican senators (including Senator McCain), and a conservative voting constituency. She is highly respected by both parties and is able to reach across the aisle consistently (her latest budget win came from some Republicans voting for it). Foreign policy issues are daily issues for her with immigration challenges, relationships with Mexico, and a substantial number of reserve and National Guard members in Iraq, to whom she is commander-in-chief.
Jennifer Granholm (for illustration purposes - she is not eligible to be a U.S. President as she was not born in the United States). Same pattern as above: having to work collaboratively. As a Democrat, she leads in a very conservative state, with Mitt Romney as a native son. She must constantly work to reach consensus, particularly with the business community. Foreign policy issues in her state mirror the whole U.S. challenge. The auto industry in Michigan has been hard hit by globalization and global competitors.
Linda Lingle -- Hawaii: A Republican governor in a state consistently voting Democratic. She is the first Republican governor since 1962. In a legislature dominated by Democrats, she is seen as a real agent of change. She has mastered "senatorial" collaboration as a survival skill. In 2006, she won reelection by the largest margin in state history.
Each of these women possess the skill sets now being lauded by the two candidates coming from the Senate (and Senator Hillary Clinton too). These governors (there are currently eight sitting women governors -- 5 Democrats and 3 Republicans) will more likely possess superb skills honed by being part of a "minority" power group and yet having hands-on experience similar to generals and vice presidents.
Both Governors Sibelius and Napolitano are seen as possible vice presidential running mates for Senator Obama.
My hope? In the next presidential cycle or two, half-dozen women governors, both Republican and Democrat, will runs as candidates for the presidency. They have everything it takes to be presidential -- experienced executive leadership with senatorial instincts.