Clinton for Governor

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

President Clinton is headed out to California next week to do some campaigning for San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who trails badly in the polls.

I wish he would ditch Newsom and run for governor himself.

I started having Clinton rescue fantasies the morning this summer when he landed at Burbank airport with two California journalists he’d rescued from North Korea. Then, as now, five people were running for governor – two Democrats, three Republicans – and none of them had set the world on fire.

Polls suggest that as many as half of voters are undecided about whom to support for governor.

So why not Bill Clinton?

At first blush, being a governor again would seem a step down from the presidency. But a Clinton governorship could benefit the state and help solve lingering problems both for Clinton himself and for his wife. Here are five reasons why this is an idea Clinton should take seriously.

1. Governing California these days is a presidential level challenge. In fact, there may be no more difficult job in American political life. Commentators from across the spectrum have said that the state is simply ungovernable. If anyone can govern the ungovernable, it’s Clinton.

His record matches the moment. Need someone to corral the spending of liberal Democrats? Why not Clinton, who made balancing the budget the centerpiece of his economic strategy? Need someone to outmaneuver the highly ideological conservative California Republicans who love to use the leverage of the two-thirds requirement to tie the state up in knots? Remember what Clinton did to Newt Gingrich?

2. He might even be eligible to run.

To be sure, the question of eligibility is the most difficult obstacle to a Clinton governorship. The former president is a New York voter, and the California constitution says that a governor must have been a resident of the state for five years previous. But nowhere in the document is residency clearly defined.

One could make a convincing case that Clinton has been a de facto resident of the state for 20 years. As a presidential candidate and as president, he spent so much time here that he is often credited with helping to turn California into a solidly blue state. In the post-presidency, he’s spent so much time out here with his playboy pals – notably grocery magnate Ron Burkle and producer Steve Bing (it was the latter’s plane Clinton used to bring the journalists home from North Korea) — that he has a better claim on residence than many California members of Congress.

The state also has a long record of court rulings finding that residency, for political purposes, is just about whatever a candidate says it is. Democrats in the legislature could make things perfectly clear with a resolution declaring Clinton a resident. Assuming the former president could find a place in California (my suggestion: a condo in Manhattan Beach, conveniently just 10 minutes from LAX) and register to vote here at least three months before the first filing deadline next February, Clinton would be eligible to run.

Heck, with the other five major candidates hailing from Northern California, the president could claim to be the only Southern Californian in the race.

3. A Clinton governorship would be good for Hillary.

As a globetrotting former president, Bill Clinton is destined to be stepping on the toes of the Secretary of State constantly. But as governor of California, he’d have to stay in the country, leaving the rest of the world to her. Wouldn’t a Gov. Clinton create problems for President Obama? Probably not. Obama has made clear he doesn’t much care much about California’s dysfunction, having turned down the state’s appeals for federal loan guarantees and other assistance even as the state cut deeply into its schools and safety net.

4. The job is low-risk, high-reward.

What could go wrong for Gov. Clinton? He would find it awfully hard to govern, but expectations – given the fact that the whole world knows how broken California’s state government is – would be low. If he succeeds even modestly, his governorship would seem like a major triumph. And yes, Clinton could have a high-profile moral hiccup, but what better place to have such a hiccup than in California? This state elected Schwarzenegger only days after the groping reports. And Newsom’s own record on marital fidelity hasn’t deterred him.

5. It’d be good for Clinton.

He could return to the campaign trail, which has always been his real home. The Clinton story needs a final chapter that is about something more than his wife’s career, paid speeches, or his own foundation work. Governing California would be a true public service—and a terrific career capper.

So how about it, Mr. President? Up for one more rescue?

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