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The Rise of Sunbelt Governors: Conservative Outsiders in the White House


  • AUTHOR'S NOTE: I wish to thank the archivists and research staff at the Ronald Reagan, William Jefferson Clinton, and George W. Bush presidential libraries for their assistance.

In memory of Alan Rosenthal

There have been two periods in American political development where governors and their particular brand of politics have held sway in the White House. The first period, occurring during the Progressive Era, was marked by presidents like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, who brought their state-honed reform agendas with them to the presidency. Three-quarters of a century later, their push for greater federal authority over big business, machine politics, and ineffective direction of public policy at the local level, was met by fierce resistance from a different breed of governor-presidents. Hailing from the Sunbelt, these governors sought to overturn the “Hudson” progressive model. The conservative (and at times moderate) presidential politics of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush exemplified a brand of outsider governance dedicated to ending “big government.” Among their accomplishments was the confirmation of the American governorship as a distinctly powerful institution for shaping presidential behavior. This article examines this latter cohort of governor-presidents and the meaning they brought to “outsider” politics.