In memory of Alan Rosenthal

  1. Top of page
  2. In memory of Alan Rosenthal
  3. The Hudson and Sunbelt Executive Eras in Contrast
  4. From Reagan to Bush: Sunbelt Conservatism in the States
  5. Sunbelt Presidencies: Constancy and Departure in the Case against Big Government
  6. Conclusion
  7. References
  8. Biography

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.

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

  1. Top of page
  2. In memory of Alan Rosenthal
  3. The Hudson and Sunbelt Executive Eras in Contrast
  4. From Reagan to Bush: Sunbelt Conservatism in the States
  5. Sunbelt Presidencies: Constancy and Departure in the Case against Big Government
  6. Conclusion
  7. References
  8. Biography

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. LaFollette, 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 away at by new antiunion, “right-to-work” laws. As Paul Frymer has written, “In ‘right-to-work’ states, for instance, that today encompass most of the South, and many of the western and Great Plains states, unions have almost no authority over who can join their ranks as workers can reap the benefits of a union contract without joining the union or paying dues” (2008, 48). The opposition to the progressive state also included moving away from a legalistic and rights-oriented approach to public policy, and doing away with (or severely curtailing) the regulatory state. The conservative agenda of the Sunbelt was also tied in important ways to the changing dynamics of the nation's race relations, brought about by changes in both the law and American culture since the late 1940s. But there was another identity shift in politics apart from southern antagonisms against the advance of black rights, as the largely Catholic and Jewish base of the liberal industrial Northeast lost influence to the growing evangelical Protestantism of the Sunbelt.

Seeking the suburbs over the cities, business-friendly tax policies, and an anticrime agenda, Sunbelt voters looked to their governors for protection against the evils of big government. These included the perceived preferential treatment for racial minorities and the burdens of social welfare policies seen as antithetical to individual freedom. Where the Hudson progressive governors were empowered to use big government, Sunbelt governors were empowered to fight it. Where Hudson progressives were voted into office to regulate big industries such as the railroads and utilities, Sunbelt conservatives were elected to lure them. Sunbelt politics also capitalized on growth in the new defense industry emergent after World War II and the concomitant rise in small-business entrepreneurship at the heart of Sunbelt economics. The large industrial corporations of the Northeast that once were at the center of political power in the first half of the twentieth century were seen as part of an older, less nimble, and slower-growth economy.

In sum, where TR, Wilson, and FDR brought their statehouse experiences to Washington to protect the rights of Americans as members of groups (workers, the elderly, veterans, and in time, women and African Americans), Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush sought to transform national politics by projecting their more conservative gubernatorial agendas into national policy. The new objectives of these efforts focused on ending the welfare state, while freeing up corporate and individual initiative. The regional nature of this shift in state and national executive priorities was emblematic of the ways in which America was changing.

What was held in common by both groups of governor-presidents, however, is of equal significance to the story of the rise of Sunbelt governors and their status as conservative outsiders in the White House. The political pedigree of both cohorts of executives made all the difference. Washington insiders proved more electable to the presidency during periods of relative consensus, as was the case between 1945 and 1976. When public alienation is on the rise (whether in 1876 in the aftermath of the Grant administration scandals and economic crisis, or in 1976, after Watergate and recession), governors as outsiders are better positioned to be elected—and to make claims for reversing unpopular national trends. They are not associated with the received currents of politics in Washington, nor are they as staked as senators, even from their own states, on national issues; they have a freer hand as candidates to condemn current national policies. In addition, as executives, they are able to carve out a record that cuts against the current national political disposition in ways that senators cannot (or at least not as credibly). Rooted in their state and region rather than located in Washington, they are more likely to be attuned to new issues and ideologies, and to a changing political culture. Governors as outsiders can thus be characterized as conveyors of a new mood and agenda from a dominant but discontented region in American politics. It is this distinction that made them the chief agents of the largest political changes in the United States since 1900.

The importance of a Sunbelt governorship as political pedigree in recent American history is evident not only in capturing the presidency but even earlier, in gaining the presidential nominations of one of the two major parties. Consider the three conservative or centrist figures upon whom this article concentrates. In 1980, former governor of California Reagan won the Republican nomination by defeating George H. W. Bush, a consummate Washington insider, and John Anderson, a moderate midwestern congressman. In 1992, sitting governor Clinton of Arkansas took the Democratic nomination by defeating Paul Tsongas, a former senator from Massachusetts, and Jerry Brown, like Reagan an ex-governor of California, but, unlike Reagan, hailing from the more liberal northern part of the state. In 2000, sitting governor George W. Bush of Texas defeated his sole serious rival, John McCain, an Arizona senator who shared Bush's Sunbelt location but lacked his Sunbelt orthodoxy.

From Reagan to Bush: Sunbelt Conservatism in the States

  1. Top of page
  2. In memory of Alan Rosenthal
  3. The Hudson and Sunbelt Executive Eras in Contrast
  4. From Reagan to Bush: Sunbelt Conservatism in the States
  5. Sunbelt Presidencies: Constancy and Departure in the Case against Big Government
  6. Conclusion
  7. References
  8. Biography

For nearly 50 years a basic consensus had held in American politics, even during times of turbulence. The New Deal and most of its programs remained fundamentally unchallenged, even during the presidencies of Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford. The Cold War was likewise a subject where principles were held more in common than contested by the two major parties. But by 1980, conservatives were poised to break this consensus. And break it they did. Yet, outside of Washington, keen observers could point to movement in the states that best signaled this conservative uprising—and they would see evidence of it most clearly in the American Sunbelt, where the roots of the modern conservative movement were laid. Spanning four decades, the governorships of Reagan, Clinton, and Bush, each in their own way, reflect how conservative governors from the Sunbelt altered the politics of their day.

The New Political Disposition of the Sunbelt

One of the neglected stories of how conservatives reshaped American politics in the second half of the twentieth century has to do with how southern and western governors influenced, and in a number of instances personally transformed, the direction of federal power and priorities at the presidential level. Prior to Jimmy Carter's election in 1976, a governor had not been elected president from the South since James K. Polk in 1844. Just four years later, Reagan became the first former governor ever elected from a state west of Ohio.1 Yet, in the 32 years between the presidential elections of 1976 and 2008, governors from the Sunbelt2 occupied the White House for all but four of them. The only comparable period in American history is the first wave of governor-presidents ending in TR, Wilson, and FDR. That cohort of presidents, keen on using their executive powers in unconventional ways, laid the foundations of the modern administrative state and presidency. Party affiliation was less important to them (and to voters) than a progressive and nationally centered direction for the country.

The most recent group of governor-presidents has this bipartisan identity in common with the old Hudson progressive line—only with an antipathy toward big government. While Carter and Clinton were both Democrats, it is important to recognize their relatively moderate, or right of center, place within the party (Lowndes 2008; Zelizer 2010).3 Both of these governors took to emphasizing their southern roots during their respective campaigns, signaling a new willingness to break away from the regional and intellectual leadership base of the party. In a sense, Carter and Clinton burnished these credentials as they presented themselves as outsiders to voters. In his memoirs, Carter reflected on this appeal, in his chapter, “An Outsider in Washington”:

Since I had run my entire campaign on the very popular political theme that I was not part of the Washington “mess,” I understood that much of the responsibility would be mine in developing better rapport. … An important achievement of my administration when I was governor of Georgia had been to reorganize the state government, and I was eager to make similar changes in the federal government. I wanted to combine many scattered agencies into one Department of Energy; establish another department for all matters concerning education; deregulate banks, airlines, trucking, communications, and railways; hold down the number of federal employees; and consolidate or eliminate as many of the small agencies and advisory groups as possible. (Carter 1982, 69)

Excepting his discussion of energy and education, Carter's aspirations reads like a laundry list of conservative talking points shared by other Sunbelt governor-presidents of his time.

Carey McWilliams (1949), an influential journalist, described California's progressive transformation as a product of a certain kind of migration. So too was Sunbelt conservatism's growth a product of migration and demographic change. The western and southern population booms of the second half of the twentieth century were shaped by deindustrialization in the North's overcrowded and increasingly violent cities. Those who moved to the warmer climes of the Sunbelt were seeking personal security as much as they were space and economic opportunity. The states of the growing Southwest, in particular, were offering a conservative and libertarian mix of policy prescriptions to attract both individuals and corporations. Smaller government was sold as more democratic, to be sure (especially on issues such as education, busing, and taxes), but it was also less committed to the seemingly complex and burdensome problems of civil rights and poverty. As Kenneth Baer (2000, 24) has argued, “On domestic concerns, the [Democratic] platform began to articulate a ‘rights-based’ liberalism that focused on extending rights and freedoms to individuals and social groups.” The post–civil rights electorate of the Sunbelt became racialized in new ways, with personal freedom and security trumping what conservatives saw as a fetish for collective rights. This racial component was but one element in a wider tableau of Sunbelt conservatism, essential as it was. Just as TR and Wilson articulated the promises of progressivism through unique and sometimes discordant voices (Milkis 2009), so too did conservative governor-presidents emphasize different aspects of Sunbelt conservatism's values.

These distinctions among Sunbelt governors were less about a basic political disposition than they were a matter of time, as well as national versus state politics. Consider that Reagan's, Clinton's, and Bush's governorships encompassed, respectively, the 1960s and 1970s, the 1980s, and the 1990s. Governing at different times, they not only emphasized different issues (along with shared ones, such as law and order), but they did so in ways that reflected first a new, and then a standard, and finally, a declining conservative posture. Take tax cuts, for instance, which were more popular under Reagan than under Bush, or, for that matter, the issue of capital punishment, which has lost some of its popular appeal and was a point of some controversy for Governor Bush. The constancy among these three latter governor-presidents can be found in the broader Sunbelt disposition, not necessarily the specific terms of their issue agendas, despite some significant overlap. The same can be said for the Hudson progressive governors.

Furthermore, we should not expect a Sunbelt presidency to be a mirror image of a Sunbelt governorship from the same individual, any more than TR in the White House was a replica of TR in Albany. The broad strokes of national change as articulated by these governor-presidents must be understood in the context of period and policy imperatives. Moreover, some issues, Social Security for example, along with national security and war, are national and not state-based, and became important for Sunbelt governors only when they entered the White House. Bush's unilateral foreign policy and war-making were not reflective of his gubernatorial stances, although they did reflect the conservative disposition. So while there have been important differences among both progressive and conservative governor-presidents, what is of greater note is how each, in succession, took what they had imbibed at the state level and transferred those lessons to the White House, forming two powerful and transformative cohorts of presidential leaders many decades apart.

Reagan's Case for Law and Order and Beyond

In recounting California's problems in his memoir about his time working for Reagan, Edwin Meese III listed a host of issues that lured voters away from the big cities of the East: “high taxes, urban sprawl and traffic congestion, environmental disputes, crime, a large welfare class, and so on.” (Meese 1992, 27) Naturally, Reagan did not run on all of these issues in 1966 during his gubernatorial campaign. Instead, his chief focus was the issue of crime, and it was this issue that brought Meese out of the district attorney's office of Alameda County. (Meese 1992, 28) Meese was brought in to help Reagan address a back-log in death row cases and other law enforcement matters. (Meese 1992, 30) In announcing his candidacy, Reagan declared “Every day the jungle draws a little closer. … Our city streets are jungle paths after dark” (Branch, 1986, 544). As Reagan's biographer Lou Cannon points out, both the unrest at the University of California at Berkeley and the Watts Rebellion were skillfully exploited by Reagan, as his Democratic competitor Pat Brown “underestimated the power of the conservative revolt that was brewing in the suburbs of Los Angeles, San Diego, and Orange counties” (Cannon 2000, 146). Reagan's riff on the “jungle” ended with a shot at the decaying industrial states of the Northeast, even as he lamented what was happening in California.4

Reagan's victory over Brown was part of a national trend in 1966 as Republicans won 10 governorships previously held by Democrats. (Cannon 2000, 160) Just as “the laboratories of democracy” were headed by progressive governors at the dawn of government's radical expansion in the early 1900s, so too did the second half of the century witness a new pool of conservative governors elected to office—this time with the goal of ending such experimentation. Reagan reflected Sunbelt conservatism's call for law and order during his campaign as well as any Republican governor in the nation. While he framed the 1966 campaign as one of “simple morality,” Reagan had, in fact, capitalized on the specific sense of voter unrest with “lawlessness.” (Perlstein 2008, 92) Forty-five percent of the voters in the 1966 gubernatorial election credited Reagan with being the candidate who would do a better job on the state's most pressing issues—ranked as “crime, drugs, and juvenile delinquency” (Perlstein, 2008, 348).5 Perlstein is not wrong in suggesting that Reagan's 1966 victory laid out a road map of sorts for Richard Nixon's successful 1968 presidential campaign, while simultaneously generating interest in his own national candidacy. (Perlstein, 2008, 94) Reagan's early bromides against the “mess at Berkeley” (Cannon 2000, 271) foreshadowed how conservatives would soon meld law and order issues with a populist critique of “intellectuals” and the academy. The term “anti-intellectual” soon became a badge of honor among Sunbelt candidates and voters.

Lou Cannon and others see the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and its attendant association with student protests and militancy as inducing one of the earliest forms of a “backlash among white working-class Democrats” in the nation (Cannon 2000, 5). Edward P. Morgan's recent work on the 1960s likewise suggests Reagan “took on the mantle of law and order in his 1966 campaign for governor of California, exploiting fears aroused by the Watts riot of 1965” (Morgan 2010, 159) As governor, Reagan supported the basic proposition that student protesters who violated the rules should be expelled. While there remains some substantive debate over Reagan's influence in ousting the university chancellor, Clark Kerr, it is clear that his vote to expel the chancellor proved decisive (Cannon 2000, 277-78). As Reagan took the initial brunt of criticism for Kerr's removal, the move ultimately resonated with voters who felt that the university's elitism came at too heavy a price. By 1968, just one full year into his governorship, Reagan had advanced from being seen as too extreme within his own party to being the favorite candidate of the Young Republicans and the chairman of the Republican Governors' Conference (Busch 1997, 66).

Reagan's record as governor of California was mixed, but he nevertheless proved adept at successfully portraying his defeats as victories. As Cannon points out, “California was not safer when Reagan left office,” as the homicide rate doubled while armed robberies soared even more (Cannon, 2000, 388). But it was the rhetorical powers of Reagan that helped frame his circumstances in ways that proved politically advantageous. In his first inaugural address as governor of California, Reagan made his conservative law and order agenda clear:

We lead the nation in many things; we are going to stop leading in crime. Californians should be able to walk our streets safely day or night. The law abiding are entitled to at least as much protection as the lawbreakers. While on the subject of crime. … those with a grievance can seek redress in the courts or Legislature, but not in the streets. Lawlessness by the mob, as with the individual, will not be tolerated. We will act firmly and quickly to put down riot or insurrection wherever and whenever the situation requires.6

Much of Reagan's success owed to his skillfulness, honed by years as an actor, in delivering these lines forcefully, but with a kind of temperance. He possessed, it was said, “all the Goldwater virtues with none of the flaws” (Busch 1997, 64).

Reagan's rhetorical gifts perhaps were his chief political contribution to Sunbelt conservatism's rise. Finding comfort in delegation and avoiding conflict where possible, his conservatism in speech was often grander than it was in practice. While ultimately proving unable to stem the tide of government's growth in California (or later in Washington), Reagan excelled at colorful anecdotes with conservative punch lines that proved more durable in the public mind than political realities.

To be sure, Reagan's rhetoric captured the changing times and regional shifts in ideological disposition as much as it made them. Between 1964 and 1980, the belief that “the government has gone too far in regulating business and interfering with the free enterprise system” grew from just 42% to 65%.7 Even as Reagan oversaw this continued growth of government, his ability to connect with the American people served to obscure his limited capacity to reverse it.8

Ronald Reagan's western, optimistic, and sunny disposition helped make the new politics of the Sunbelt less threatening. As governor of the nation's largest state, one with deep progressive roots, he was able to recast the politics of his time as much by his persona as through public policy. His California governorship was not without genuine conservative credentials, however. As Lou Cannon has argued, Reagan “roused the public and demonstrated, as no one had done before him, that it is possible to succeed as governor of a major state without abandoning conservative convictions.” (Cannon 2000, 389) Future governors of the Sunbelt would be fighting to make real much of what Reagan could only partly achieve in speech. That rhetoric cast a large shadow, however, one that compelled the Democratic Party, in time, to revisit its own governing ethos.

Governor Clinton and the “New Democratic Party”

Clinton's Arkansas governorship mirrored the larger political changes taking place in the South. While his first campaign for governor brought a victory more in keeping with the left-of-center politics of the Democratic Party nationally than those that followed, Clinton was well attuned to the changing politics of the Sunbelt. “This is a bad time [to support labor], because our people generally are in a conservative mood,” Clinton told members of the AFL-CIO in Hot Springs, Arkansas, at their convention in 1976 (Maraniss 1995, 348). Clinton's campaign for attorney general, just two years prior to his race for the governorship, was an early sign of his grasp of conservatism's new power in historically Democratic states like Arkansas. As David Maraniss noted about Clinton's ties with labor, they were perceived by the candidate as “a mixed blessing” as Clinton hoped to “shed his image as a tool of the trade unions” (Maraniss 1995, 348). Despite attacks on his patriotism via draft-dodger accusations, Clinton defeated Republican Lynn Lowe with 63% of the vote, becoming the youngest governor of an American state in decades (Clinton 2004, 258).

Clinton's first term agenda as governor of Arkansas “bubbled over with ideas that [his advisors] had been collecting from progressive policy thinkers around the nation” (Maraniss 1995, 360). Of these items, infrastructure reinvestment stood out, as Clinton sought to revamp the aging roads and highways of Arkansas. In the fine print of his proposal was an unpopular tax burden on cars that ultimately proved damaging in the next election, just two years away. Less publicized and more in keeping with the emergent politics of small government, was Clinton's entrée into the world of welfare reform. Reflecting on the experience in his memoir, Clinton saw himself “moving toward a more empowering, work-oriented approach to helping poor people, one that I carried with me to the White House” (Clinton 2004, 272) But welfare reform would take a back seat to the car tax issue and the more sensationalized episode of Cuban refugee unrest at Fort Chaffee. In the end, Clinton was “killed by the car tags” (Clinton 2004, 283).

In his effort to win back the governor's mansion, Clinton reenlisted Dick Morris who had assisted him in his first run for the governorship in 1978. Clinton's campaign in 1982 now began with a faith-affirming trip to the Holy Land, Hilary Rodham's public announcement that she'd adopt Clinton's last name, and a commitment to returning the advertising fire against his primary and general election challengers. On policy—the economy, utilities, and jobs—Clinton was more than prepared to fend off opponents to his right. (Clinton 2004, 296-303)

Clinton's Democratic Convention speech of 1980 reflected his move toward centrism and his desire to have his party better represent the shifting national mood:

We were brought up to believe uncritically, without thinking about it, that our system broke down in the Great Depression, was reconstructed by Franklin Roosevelt through the New Deal and World War II, and would never break again. And all that we had to do was try to reach out and extend the benefits of America to those who had been dispossessed: minorities and women, the elderly, the handicapped and children. But the hard truth is that for ten long years through Democratic and Republican administrations alike, this economic system has been breaking down. (Maraniss, 1995, 382-83)

Four years later, Clinton offered a dead-pan reaction to Democratic Governor Richard Lamm's effusive praise for Mario Cuomo's stirring defense of liberalism at the Democratic National Convention (DNC). “Come on,” Clinton protested, “what did it really say about the issues we're trying to raise?” (Maraniss 1995, 417). The Clinton of 1984 was now in support of teacher tests, to the dismay of the Arkansas Education Association (AEA).

As Kenneth Baer has written, Clinton had become comfortable taking “positions to blunt traditional Republican attacks against Democrats in the area of social issues” (2000, 200). Along with support for the death penalty, Governor Clinton supported tax cuts, welfare reform, and tough new crime policies. His New Democrat platform was well suited to fit with the realities of the transformed Sunbelt; many of the key provisions came from the Democratic Leadership Council's (DLC) program and later became the basis of President Clinton's New Covenant agenda (Baer 2000, 199-200). As David Maraniss has assessed, “Bill Clinton considered himself a transitional figure between liberals and conservatives” (1995, 435).

With Reagan reelected in 1984, and Cuomo's DNC oratory a fading memory, Democrats turned to Clinton in 1985 to respond to Reagan's State of the Union Address. His was, Clinton recalled, a message “based on fiscal responsibility, creative new ideas on social policy, and a commitment to a strong national defense” (Clinton 2004, 319). It also reflected the more conservative realities of the nation and the particularly resonant politics of Sunbelt governors. As Sean Wilentz noted, “As with Jimmy Carter before him, Clinton's southern background attracted some party professionals who wanted to break through the Democrats' image as the party of effete, northern, liberal do-gooders.” (2008, 318) Cuomo may well have been the last of the Hudson progressives, but it was Clinton's conservative Sunbelt agenda that was rising. In his televised State of the Union response, Clinton employed the now familiar terms “bridge to the 21st century” and “New Democrat.” And he responded in agreement with Reagan's view of government, albeit with a caveat: “We want the government off our backs too. But we need it by our sides.”9 Like other liberals, George Stephanopoulos was made apprehensive by Clinton's conservative bent. “He supported the death penalty; I was against it. He had supported Bush's Gulf War; I was for extending sanctions. He supported the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s; I thought this policy was both illegal and wrong” (Stephanopoulos, 1999, 30). Ultimately, Stephanopoulos, like many other Democrats, grew to embrace Clinton, if not all of his politics.

In his keynote address to the Democratic Leadership Council meeting in Cleveland in the spring of his campaign for the presidency, Clinton made clear his policy commitments on one of the signature issues of Sunbelt conservatism. “We should invest more money in people on welfare to give them the skills they need to succeed … but we should demand that everybody who can go to work do it, for work is the best social program this country has ever devised.”10 The language of responsibility was laced throughout this and all future addresses and talking points on welfare. Clinton elaborated further several months later at Georgetown University, where he uttered perhaps his most famous policy statement: “The new covenant can break the cycle of welfare. Welfare should be a second chance, not a way of life. In my administration we're going to put an end to welfare as we have come to know it. I want to erase the stigma of welfare for good by restoring a simple dignified principle: no one who can work can stay on welfare forever.”11 The Cleveland speech's overwhelming success made Clinton presidential timber in the eyes of the media. The Georgetown address affirmed its message and gave it added significance with the historic line on welfare.

In his major presidential campaign speeches, Clinton laid out the rhetorical path from the progressive politics of old to the new conservative politics of the Sunbelt. His lines were well honed from years of experience in Little Rock. They were a call for the limited role of government, delivered with the admonishments of an ally, rather than an adversary. While less divisive than the rhetoric employed by Reagan, Clinton's rhetoric was a signal to both Democrats and Republicans that the nation's liberal party was changing. The conservative politics of the Sunbelt's governors was ready to be carried forth by one of its Democratic sons.

Bush and Texas's Changing Politics

When George W. Bush entered Texas gubernatorial politics in 1994, he ran on a short list of issues. These included welfare and education reform, tougher penalties for juvenile offenders, and limits to what he perceived as excessive litigation against business (Greenstein 2003). It was a succinct but well-crafted set of priorities, made more palatable by Bush's embrace of a more modest brand of “compassionate conservatism.” Promising bipartisanship with the Texas legislature, he was able to present himself as a reasonable and less strident choice than Democratic Governor Ann Richards, whom he sought to unseat. In Texas, Bush faced the stark reality that Democrats had held the legislature for over 100 years. (Greenstein 2003, 142) Bush's victory was perhaps less surprising than his ability to successfully navigate his four priorities through the legislature during his first full year in office. However, as John C. Fortier and Norman Ornstein note, these were issues the legislature had worked on before Bush took office. (Greenstein 2003, 142). Still, Bush's brand of conservatism was more in keeping with the evolving nature of Texas politics, which had moved away from the type of populist liberal politics supported by Richards.

Bush's victory and subsequent first term reflected more than Richards' belief that Bush was elected on simple “wedge” issues. “He is governor because of guns,” she said after her defeat (McCall 2009). Yet, Bush also supported and led the passage of the largest tax cut bill in Texas history, in addition to dramatically increasing the number of charter schools, reflecting popular Sunbelt sentiment in favor of school privatization and choice. He also vetoed the Patients' Protection Act, describing it as “excessive government intrusion into the private health care marketplace, exactly the sort of government overreach that an advocate of limited government must oppose” (McCall 2009, 121-22). Tax, education, and health care policy proved as significant in Bush's ideological and political disposition (and success) as guns, faith, and Texas-style bonhomie. In his first term, he also managed to cut the welfare rolls in half (Renshon 2004, 97). While owing in part to a growing economy, overall such victories went beyond the superfluity of simple cultural cues.

Bush's first term successes in Texas—with its avowedly weak governorship—were in part also owing to a bipartisan disposition demanded by his party's relative weakness within the state legislature. But Bush also capitalized on having developed an early “reputation for being conservative on issues but moderate in demeanor” (Campbell and Rockman 2004, 331). Bush understood this penchant for “working across the aisle” as integral to his electoral success. “I went into 1998 feeling confident about my record,” he has written. “We had passed the largest tax cut in the history of Texas and made it easier for children in foster care to be adopted by loving families. Many of these laws were sponsored and supported by Democrats” (Bush 2010, 59). Yet, it is important to remember that Bush's views of executive power were steeped solely in the environs of statehouse leadership, an important factor in helping to encourage presidents rising from governorships to exercise “leadership by definition” (Campbell and Rockman 2004, 414). Cannon and Cannon saw this trait in the extreme in Bush when compared to Reagan. “If Governor Bush demonstrated a willingness to compromise, he also had a short attention span, an unnerving level of certitude, and a habit of hiring underlings based on personal loyalty” (Cannon and Cannon 2008, 237). Cannon has argued that the politics of Austin masked more than it revealed these traits—but they were there.

By his second term, Bush became more closely identified with law and order issues that had become such a distinctive part of Sunbelt politics. While he would later argue that he “reviewed every death penalty case thoroughly” (Bush 1999, 141), he followed the counsel of his advisors, cutting down the time spent on individual death penalty cases from 30 to 15 minutes (Greenstein 2003, 5). Bush's willingness to use the death penalty in unprecedented fashion in Texas mirrored the rise in executions nationwide.12 In fact, there had been a 650% increase in executions in the United States in the 1990s compared to the 1980s (Galliher, Koch, Keys, and Guest 2002, 4). The era of governors opposed to the death penalty, such as Michael Dukakis and Cuomo, had been supplanted by those who did, such as Clinton and Bush. It was but one aspect of the shifting regional and ideological politics capitalized on by Sunbelt conservatives.

Bush's personal identity was arguably as significant to his electoral success in Texas and beyond as his policy positions. George H. W. Bush's efforts to meld his New England ancestry and background with Sunbelt politics never seemed quite natural. On the other hand, George W. Bush's evangelical identity, proud Texas identification (however carefully marketed), and antielitist bent (again, a well-crafted affair) were all reflective of Sunbelt politics in the latter part of the twentieth century. Another important distinction between Bush and his father is the fact that his governorship was his only significant political experience prior to the presidency (Fortier and Ornstein 2003, 140). Bush's confidence in his ability to be the “decider” at the end of the deliberative process among his aides, a product of his Austin years, was not unique. Governors in the White House have invariably come to see their executive power as final and decisive. Their very election carries with it the suggestion that they are uniquely qualified to “change Washington” and fix the nation's problems. It is worth considering the fact that among Presidents Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush, only Carter spent any time in a legislative body—and that was four years in the Georgia legislature.13 None of the four spent a single day in Congress. This was also the case for TR, Wilson, and FDR.14 Of course, Bush's experience as governor of a state with relatively weak executive authority cannot be measured well against that of Reagan's, for example. This may well help explain Bush's transition from a more conciliatory leader as governor to one far more comfortable with unilateral action at the presidential level.

In the halcyon period leading up to Bush's campaign for the presidency, Republican governors were still swayed by their own sense of “outsider's” power in Washington. As the New York Times reported nearly one year before the 2000 election, “The Republican governors are united behind Mr. Bush not so much by any firm ideological ties as by the concerns that all governors share and by a common hope among the Republicans that, as Gov. John Engler of Michigan put it, ‘a Republican president in Washington would be enormously helpful’ in reducing the power of the federal government and granting more to the states.”15

Sunbelt Presidencies: Constancy and Departure in the Case against Big Government

  1. Top of page
  2. In memory of Alan Rosenthal
  3. The Hudson and Sunbelt Executive Eras in Contrast
  4. From Reagan to Bush: Sunbelt Conservatism in the States
  5. Sunbelt Presidencies: Constancy and Departure in the Case against Big Government
  6. Conclusion
  7. References
  8. Biography

The presidential campaigns, policies, and rhetoric of Reagan, Clinton, and Bush, offer the type of diversity in speech and action one would expect to see over the course of several decades between Democrats and Republicans. Still, there was much that was shared among the three presidents—most significantly an outsider's calling to “fix Washington.” And fixing Washington meant at its most basic level, downsizing the size and reach of the federal government. There would be a number of national policies and issues that would highlight the Sunbelt's hold on American politics in the last quarter of the twentieth century, but welfare would hold a special place in the litany of conservative targets for reform.

Welfare Reform and the New Federalism

Among the issues that were the focus of Reagan's campaign and ultimate election to the governorship of California, none proved to have quite the staying power as welfare reform. Indeed, from that 1966 campaign until President Clinton's 1996 legislative victory on the issue, welfare policy was arguably more reflective of the Sunbelt disposition than any other issue emanating from the region. For nearly a generation, the politics of welfare stood out among conservative calls to reshape government. The response to those calls would come to be seen as coming from unexpected places at times—namely, a Democratic president; but the surprise would belie the very real political facts attached to the Sunbelt as a region and to the ways in which Sunbelt governors—in either party—were likely to address them.

Early on, conservatives pedaled welfare reform as much for its value as an election issue as for a practical legislative objective. The Reagan 1980 transition was a good example of this. Edwin Meese's postelection remarks to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in December of 1980 offered as good a window as any into how the Reagan administration intended to transfer its Sunbelt-friendly policies to Washington (Wilentz 2008, 180). Meese's policy agenda was not unique, however; it could well have been drawn up by any number of conservative Republican governors, and a growing number of centrist Democratic ones as well. Meese's list included “a hiring freeze” in the executive branch, “the suspension of regulations that have not yet taken effect,” greater clarity over the federal government's role in “law enforcement,” and “a lot to do in the field of taxation.”16 As the ramifications of what Meese was proposing became apparent, he was asked “Does this election mean the end of liberalism as we know it today?” The “philosophical question,” as Meese described it, warranted a more robust reply:

I have been involved with practical aspects of things for the last couple of weeks, but let me put on a philosopher's cap for a moment and say, I don't think we can tell. For one thing, we can't tell because it's not going to be the end unless we succeed, and I think that's a very important thing… . I think if you look at the post-election polls which we're looking at now, the survey research, it is very clear that the American people have come to certain conclusions. One is that the Federal Government doing more has not been effective in solving the problems of this country.17

Meese went on to promote long-standing conservative preferences for tax cuts and deregulation, in addition to eliminating the Departments of Education (“a ridiculous bureaucratic joke”) and Energy.18 He also lauded one chamber member for putting “[his] finger on probably the greatest problem in the criminal justice field today, and that is, the lack of prison facilities and the future of corrections in this country.”19 It was the Sunbelt agenda—lower taxes, deregulation, devolution, more cops and more prisons—in full bloom. Notably, welfare went unmentioned in this talk—not because of its unimportance to the Chamber or Meese—but because of its status as a weapon of campaigning rather than as an immediate legislative objective for the Reagan administration.

Nevertheless, no single issue crystallized the abuses of big government for Reagan more than welfare. His famous anecdotes about welfare abuses involved winking appeals to racial animus, while safely drawing in “small government” conservatives. In his first inaugural address as governor of California, Reagan made what became a customary pivot from his anticrime agenda to welfare. “We are a humane and generous people and we accept without reservation our obligation to help … those unfortunates who, through no fault of their own, must depend on their fellow man. But we are not going to perpetuate poverty by substituting a permanent dole for a paycheck.”20 It would be left to President Clinton to tackle the specifics of welfare reform—of actually making “welfare-to-work” a reality. Reagan's presidential diaries, for example, only reference welfare two times, with both instances recounting its tabling (Brinkley 2007, 618, 640). Nevertheless, the symbolic power of the subject kept the issue alive within Reagan's individualist narrative, making it a staple of his on the stump.

Conversely, Clinton's defeat on his health care plan came on the heels of some encouraging news concerning welfare reform. In May of 1994, Bruce Reed sent Clinton a memo on “The Politics of Welfare Reform” that highlighted the effect his conservative policy proposals had upon his Republican opposition:

Once again, you have put Republicans in an awkward position. Either they push to get something done, help you accomplish what they've spent their careers crying out for, and risk losing a favorite wedge issue, or if they change their tune, move to the right, and run the risk that they'll look like obstructionists and box themselves into a position with little popular support … When the House held an Oxford-style debate on welfare reform last month, all the Republicans who spoke distanced themselves from the [more conservative] plan. Finally, the Republican schism is another reason for Republican governors to prefer our plan.21

Reed served as Clinton's chief domestic policy advisor and would go on to become CEO of the DLC that Clinton helped found in 1985 (Wilentz 2008, 318). Along with Clinton advisors Carol Rasco and Kathi Way, Reed warned the president in an earlier memo that “the best way to resolve these [thorny welfare issues] is through state flexibility. Throughout the plan, we have been careful to give states as many options as possible.”22 Where Republican support would be found wanting in Congress, pressure for a conservative but acceptable resolution could be provided by Republican governors. In addition to Reed, Clinton policy advisor Rahm Emanuel saw the support of governors as indispensible for “striking a bipartisan tone.”23 With the governors on board, members of Congress would soon follow. Recognizing devolution's primacy in the new welfare policy, the final bill was ultimately drafted by the National Governor's Association (Mellow 2008, 118); the politics and substance of the bill reflected the regional shifts in political influence to the South and West (Mellow 2008, 124-25).

Welfare reform—officially the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act—was finally enacted into federal law in August 1996. Clinton's own welfare reform plan was essentially put on the back burner during his first two years in the White House because priority was given to health care reform. Once the new Republican majority in Congress took power in 1995, it advanced an even more conservative plan than Clinton's. The president twice vetoed Republican bills, but signed a third version of Republican welfare reform during an election year to the considerable dismay of Democratic liberals. Although the bill he signed still contained provisions that he disliked, Clinton was now able to claim that he had fulfilled his promise to “end welfare as we know it.”

Once in office, Clinton paid careful attention to the DLC's advice and recommendations. A December 1994 memo for Clinton under the heading “Cutting Washington Down to Size,” spelled out the need for Washington to “devolve power and authority away from the federal government to the states and localities whenever appropriate.” The DLC also made specific recommendations in both domestic and foreign policy. “We need to evaluate the other DLC proposals,” Clinton marked on the memo to his advisor Bill Galston, “and determine which we should pursue—[please] organize brief recommendations on those we aren't acting on. BC.”24 The DLC's objectives were scarcely different from those stated in Meese's Chamber of Commerce speech.

When Clinton declared “the era of big government is over,” in his 1996 State of the Union Address, it was more of a promise than an observation. Lacking the moral certitude of Reagan's statement “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” Clinton's declaration—delivered by a Democratic president—immediately became historic. “We cannot go back to the time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves,” Clinton qualified. “Instead, we must go forward as one America, one nation working together to meet the challenges we face together. Self-reliance and teamwork are not opposing virtues; we must have both.”25 “Teamwork” was part of the new messaging for civil society and citizen activism. But it was not progressivism.

Like Reagan and Clinton before him, Bush saw his ultimate purpose in national politics through the lens of limited government. In his memoirs, Bush said he grew tired of watching America “drifting left toward a version of welfare-state Europe,” during Carter's presidency (Bush 2010, 38). His campaign against the Democratic nominee, Vice President Al Gore, was as much an effort to rekindle the promise of Reagan as it was an exercise in repudiating Clinton. In point of fact, Bush found himself identifying with many of Clinton's policy successes—especially welfare reform. Both candidate and President Bush found himself more at ease in making attacks on the “old-style liberal politics of Carter.” It was a difficult task to employ such attacks against Clinton. “We ended welfare as we've known it,” Bush said in just a little over a year after office.26 It was an amazing declaration, to be sure, but in a very real sense, he was not being presumptuous in laying claim to a Democratic president's legislative achievement. He was, in so many words, recognizing a common thread in the governing priorities that connected the governor-presidents Reagan, Clinton, and Bush. Each had imbibed the conservative politics of the Sunbelt before seeking to transfer them to the White House. And, each, in their own way, sought to capitalize on the politics of welfare reform.

Speaking before the National Governors' Association early in his first term, Bush also elected to place welfare reform in the context of the new federalism launched by Reagan:

We've just lived through a decade of the most exciting, important things done by government (sic) [that] have been done by governors. In 7 years, you've reduced welfare rolls by more than half, improved millions of lives of your fellow citizens by helping them find work. … I look forward to this discussion today how best to devolve authority back to the states.27

In Bush's interpretation, welfare reform was a product of the states compelling the federal government to change. It was not merely an erasure of Clinton's fingerprints on the policy, though it was most certainly that; it was an example of claiming a kind of moral continuity with the best intentions of government—including liberal government of the past. This explains Bush's fond recollection of Hubert Humphrey's moral commitment to the poor in his welfare reform address or his pledge in the same speech, to “continue a determined assault on poverty in this country.”28 It may have seemed a perversion of the Johnson-Humphrey vision to progressives, but it was an astute effort to stretch the plausible reach of conservatism.

In short, the governor-presidents Reagan, Clinton, and Bush each strove to transfer their welfare-to-work efforts at the state level to Washington. The drive to do so in their respective states was a testament to the conservative rejection of progressivism's welfare state in America's changing South and Southwest. It may have been ironic that Clinton, a Democratic president, would sign that vision into law; what was less surprising was his southern-conservative pedigree, one he shared with the cohort of governors looking to draw down the size of government in the Sunbelt and beyond.

Sunbelt Politics 2.0

Reagan's and Bush's 1980 and 2004 presidential campaigns can be seen as bookends to a period of Sunbelt political ascendancy. That arc was defined by changes in the demography and ideology of Sunbelt voters, changes that eventually stalled, if not reversed, the support for outsider conservative policies in Washington. Becoming more economically, ethnically, and politically diverse, the region has shifted toward a more heterogeneous assemblage of voters than the one governors Reagan and Clinton encountered during their governorships and presidencies.

The rise of conservative Sunbelt governors and presidents was made possible in part by the new demographic trends in the South and West, beginning in the 1950s and 1960s. Those changing dynamics, partly fueled by white flight, deindustrialization, and a shift in federal policy priorities to the region, helped foster a continuity of sorts from Reagan to Bush (Judd and Swanstrom 2002). But the socioeconomic and demographic changes that favored the Sunbelt's rise in the 1970s and 1980s were slowly waning in the 1990s and first decade of the twenty-first century. Bush's election by the narrowest of margins in 2000 may have suggested to some the permanency of Sunbelt conservatism's hold on the American electorate, yet, his ability to shape policy and rhetoric in the manner of Reagan proved to be quite limited. Moreover, it was Bush and his party's efforts to recast the message of conservative-outsider politics in this new era that at once revealed its eroding vitality and political shortcomings. If Clinton was criticized by his supporters most for abandoning liberalism, then Bush was all the more criticized by conservatives for expanding the size and reach of the federal government.

Bush's challenges were years in the making. Along with a marked increase in Latino immigration, the Sunbelt has witnessed a form of convergence with the older, industrial Northeast. As Dennis R. Judd and Todd Swanstrom have noted, “Economic forces are diversifying the economies as well as changing the demographic profiles of cities all over the country” (Judd and Swanstrom 2002, 277). Rapid immigration, concentrated poverty, and racial and ethnic conflict are no longer the exclusive (or so perceived) province of northern cities. Many industrial cities have become “entrepreneurial” and more supportive of nonmanufacturing sectors of their economies (Judd and Swanstrom 2002, 277). Voters in the Sunbelt are also less uniform in their opposition to government, while the industrial and urban tableau of the Northeast has become more probusiness. Kevin Phillips' (1969) Sunbelt politics are far removed from the changed landscape of America's South and West today.

In hindsight, Reagan's controversial 1980 Philadelphia, Mississippi., campaign speech is instructive of just how much the regional politics of the Sunbelt have changed. Today, Reagan's speech is remembered for its five-word line: “I believe in states' rights.” With the history of the killings of three civil rights workers in 1964 looming over interpretations of Reagan's views on race and civil rights, other elements of the speech have been almost forgotten. Before signifying his connection to the South and its historical perspective (Wilentz 2008, 180), Reagan spoke about welfare reform to overwhelming applause. His emphasis on welfare in Mississippi was tied strongly to the idea of bureaucratic malpractice on the part of the federal government—an accusation that minimized the role of race in arguments for welfare reform. (Mellow 2008, 122-23) Reagan was an early and effective student of the new disposition in southern politics. But the confluence of selective racial identification, opposition to federal welfare, and support for small government articulated by Reagan in 1980 represents a weaker hand in today's Sunbelt politics. Just as change came to the world of the Hudson progressives, upending a decades-long march in support of bigger, “can-do” government, so too has it come to the realm of this generation of conservative Sunbelt governors.


  1. Top of page
  2. In memory of Alan Rosenthal
  3. The Hudson and Sunbelt Executive Eras in Contrast
  4. From Reagan to Bush: Sunbelt Conservatism in the States
  5. Sunbelt Presidencies: Constancy and Departure in the Case against Big Government
  6. Conclusion
  7. References
  8. Biography

There is little question that the presidencies of TR, Wilson, and FDR were most important in creating the liberal twentieth-century state. These presidents brought their reformers' executive experiences with them from northeastern industrial governorships, reshaping not only the modern American presidency but the fundamental governing commitments of the nation as well. They comprised a distinctive executive-centered march of progressivism, one that came to define much of the nature of party politics for the remainder of the century.

But that progressive state, identified by its deeply rooted faith in the power and moral authority of the federal government, gave way in the latter part of the century to a different governing ethos. The conservative vision articulated by Barry Goldwater in 1964 was later turned into practical political reality by former governors-turned-presidents: Reagan, Clinton, and Bush. They certainly were not alone in seeking to bring about an end to “the era of big government.” But their presidencies reflected a unique brand of Sunbelt politics and helped to transform the formerly parochial and largely dormant American governorship of the mid-twentieth century back into a powerful institutional agent for change. These governors were equipped—unlike senators or vice presidents—to take office with the mandate of outsiders. They were elected to alter the direction of the country, to slow down, if not bring to a halt, the large scale and historic policy projects of presidents past. Their “Revolutions,” “New Covenants,” and “Compassionate Conservatism” brandings represented moral commitments as much as political ones; they were attempts at unwinding the expansion of federal authority associated with the older liberal assurances made by the Square Deal, New Freedom, and New Deal.

Whether progressive or conservative, governor-presidents have proven to have had the greatest ability to change the direction of government—more so than any other political actors in America. The story of liberal and conservative government's battle for supremacy in America over the last century cannot be told without understanding them as the decisive figures. This article begins to tell that story and to draw out its central themes.

  1. 1

    This is excluding Tennessee's Polk.

  2. 2

    The term “Sun Belt” first gained political currency when used in Kevin Phillips' seminal work, The Emerging Republican Majority. I employ the term as Phillips did, to identify the post–World War II, largely white, suburban-centered arc from Florida to California, where probusiness, conservative politics took hold. The term is as much a cultural signifier as it is a geographic one—and it conveys the 1950s–80s population boom in the region that was tied to a backlash against the “old” industrial, racial, and regulatory policies of the northeast. Phillips (1969, 436-43).

  3. 3

    As Kenneth Baer (2000, 27) has said, “Carter was not a party man, nor was he elected as such; he was the alternative to a party and administration tainted by the Watergate scandal …his victory was his own.”

  4. 4

    California had now, Reagan said, surpassed “New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania combined” in violent crime (Cannon, 2000, 144).

  5. 5

    Sean Wilentz (2008, 180) has the order in reverse, with Reagan mimicking Nixon's 1968 campaign in his 1980 run for the White House.

  6. 6
  7. 7

    AIPO/CBS-NYT poll, in Mayer (1992, 488).

  8. 8

    See Cannon (2000, 388) on Reagan and California's growth in government.

  9. 9
  10. 10
  11. 11
  12. 12

    “What we know about the new president is just two things,” said Claudia Roth, member of the German Parliament, upon Bush's becoming president. “He is the son of former President Bush, and he has sent 150 people to their death in Texas, including the mentally insane” (Sifakis 2003, 55).

  13. 13

    To wit, it remains an unprecedented feature of modern American political history to have two sitting governors elected on the same ticket. Indeed, among this cluster of governors-cum-president, each has selected vice presidents with considerable legislative experience in Congress; working backwards the list includes Dick Cheney, Al Gore, George H. W. Bush, and Walter Mondale. It is perhaps not an unrelated matter that the recent phenomenon of powerful vice presidents has accompanied the development of electoral success among governors vying for the presidency.

  14. 14

    Theodore Roosevelt served three one-year terms in the New York State Assembly.

  15. 15

    “Republican Governors, Wanting One of their Own, Decide Early on Bush,” New York Times, November 23, 1999.

  16. 16

    Edwin Meese, III. Remarks to the Corporate and Association Executives of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States, Friday, December 5, 1980, Washington, DC, 15-17. Ronald Reagan Transition Papers. Box 27, Series II, Subseries G. Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Simi Valley, CA.

  17. 17

    Edwin Meese, III. Remarks to the Corporate and Association Executives of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States, Friday, December 5, 1980, Washington, DC, 19. Ronald Reagan Transition Papers. Box 27, Series II, Subseries G. Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Simi Valley, CA.

  18. 18

    Edwin Meese, III. Remarks to the Corporate and Association Executives of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States, Friday, December 5, 1980, Washington, DC, 29. Ronald Reagan Transition Papers. Box 27, Series II, Subseries G. Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Simi Valley, CA.

  19. 19

    Edwin Meese, III. Remarks to the Corporate and Association Executives of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States, Friday, December 5, 1980, Washington, DC, 32. Ronald Reagan Transition Papers. Box 27, Series II, Subseries G. Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Simi Valley, CA.

  20. 20

    Edwin Meese, III. Remarks to the Corporate and Association Executives of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States, Friday, December 5, 1980, Washington, DC, 32. Ronald Reagan Transition Papers. Box 27, Series II, Subseries G. Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Simi Valley, CA.

  21. 21

    Bruce Reed, memo to President Clinton, May 30, 1994. “The Politics of Welfare Reform.” The William J. Clinton Presidential Library. Little Rock, AR,

  22. 22

    Bruce Reed, Carol Rasco, Kathi Way, memo to President Clinton, May 17, 1994. “Welfare Reform: Remaining Issues.” The William J. Clinton Presidential Library. Little Rock, AR,

  23. 23

    Bruce Reed and Rahm Emanuel, memo to Carol Rasco, “Welfare Reform,” December 9, 1994. Communications, Welfare Reform. Box 7. The William J. Clinton Presidential Library. Little Rock, AR.

  24. 24

    Bill Galston, memo (via Leon Panetta, George Stephanopoulos, Carol H. Rasco) to President Clinton. “DLC/Progressive Policy Institute Recommendations,” December 23, 1994,

  25. 25

    President William J. Clinton State of the Union Address, January 26, 1996,

  26. 26

    George W. Bush. “Remarks on Welfare Reform,” February 26, 2002,

  27. 27

    George W. Bush, “Remarks at the National Governors' Association Conference,” February 26, 2001,

  28. 28

    George W. Bush. “Remarks on Welfare Reform,” February 26, 2002,


  1. Top of page
  2. In memory of Alan Rosenthal
  3. The Hudson and Sunbelt Executive Eras in Contrast
  4. From Reagan to Bush: Sunbelt Conservatism in the States
  5. Sunbelt Presidencies: Constancy and Departure in the Case against Big Government
  6. Conclusion
  7. References
  8. Biography
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