Gov. Glenn Youngkin is making noise about running for president in 2024.
He’s booked a trip to speak to Republicans in Nebraska, which isn’t the same as first-in-the-nation Iowa, but is close enough to get some attention. The Washington Post reports that Youngkin recently flew to New York to meet with “GOP megadonors.” The Post further reports: “He also has begun speaking more often about the needs of ‘Americans,’ not just ‘Virginians,’ and has subtly changed how he answers questions about whether he will seek the White House.” The Post says Youngkin “used to respond that he is solely focused on his new job in Virginia. More recently, he has begun saying he is ‘humbled’ that so many people ‘request’ that he run.”
It’s easy to understand why Youngkin might be interested. Most of us never come closer to the White House than a tourist trip to Washington, D.C. Here’s someone who is legitimately being mentioned. He may not be mentioned in the same way that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is, and he’s certainly not mentioned in the same way that former President Donald Trump is, but his name does come up. Who among us wouldn’t be tempted?
It’s also easy to understand why some Republicans might be interested in Youngkin. We Americans are always fascinated by the latest thing and, at least for now, Youngkin is the latest thing. He came out of nowhere – politically speaking – to win the governorship in a state that hadn’t elected a Republican to statewide office for a dozen years. For those Republicans who aren’t pledged to the cult of Donald Trump, Youngkin is, at least, intriguing. Others have bigger names and higher profiles – see DeSantis above – but if early front-runners always won we might be talking right now about President Jeb Bush’s second term. If you’re a Republican scouting about for an alternative to Trump, this new Republican governor who just won in Virginia seems worth at least a look.
Youngkin has not asked my advice, but if he did, I would be torn. For the sake of both the party and the republic, it seems imperative to me that Republicans nominate someone in 2024 other than Trump. A Trump nomination runs the risk of pushing the country to a breaking point that it cannot withstand (see my earlier thoughts on this). If Republicans nominate someone else, then we have a chance of returning to something resembling normal, whether that candidate ultimately wins or loses. Right now, it looks like the right Republican nominee could probably win in 2024. Americans have historically had little patience with presidents who presided over high inflation; just ask Jimmy Carter. I doubt that Youngkin could win the nomination – other non-Trump candidates have bigger bases and seem more in tune with where the Republican Party is right now, particularly stylistically. But I also don’t doubt that if Youngkin somehow won the nomination he’d probably win the election. He’s a much more agreeable personality than the more pugnacious DeSantis, which might not serve him well in the primaries but which would serve Republicans well in a national campaign. Youngkin returned the Republican vote in many Virginia suburbs to pre-Trumpian norms; if he could do that nationally, that would probably be enough to win the swing states that tipped to Biden in 2020. Just ask Terry McAuliffe. Youngkin’s more congenial style is one reason why columnist Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post — not an organization generally sympathetic to Youngkin wrote that he, or someone like him should run. ” It is crucial that this country have a healthy two-party system, Tumulty wrote over the weekend. “Someone must test the proposition that there are still enough sane Republicans out there to create a path to the nomination for a candidate who offers himself as an alternative, rather than an amplification, of the worst aspects of Trumpism.” (If Youngkin were somehow able to win the nomination, he would also have the distinct advantage of being younger than either Biden or Trump; I suspect a lot of Americans of all persuasions are eager to move beyond this geriatric leadership. It’s time for a new generation.)
Getting a semi-endorsement from a Washington Post columnist must sound pretty enticing to Youngkin. On the other hand, I’d also refer Youngkin to Homer’s “The Odyssey,” especially the Emily Wilson translation, where the hero Ulysses must sail past the beautiful but deadly sirens who made sport of luring sailors to their death. As Ulysses’ ship approached their island, he ordered his men to plug their ears with wax. As for him, Ulysses told his sailors: “Bind me, to keep me upright at the mast, wound round with rope. If I beseech you and command [you] to set me free, you must increase my bonds and chain even tighter.” Homer is silent on how Ulysses’ sailors could hear his orders and not the sirens’ call – a major plot hole in my opinion – but the point is that Ulysses was able to hear the sirens’ alluring song without sailing his ship into their rocks.
If that’s too metaphorical, I’d advise Youngkin to read the Spanish philosopher George Santayana. It will be a short read: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The past in question is the only other time a sitting Virginia governor tried to run for president. Douglas Wilder’s aborted presidential bid in 1991-92 should serve as a cautionary tale for Youngkin.
Wilder’s approval ratings in Virginia cratered during his brief campaign. Just before he finally dropped out in January 1992, they hit 22%, the lowest ever recorded at the time for a statewide figure in Virginia. (These numbers came from the Commonwealth Poll at Virginia Commonwealth University.) There were multiple things pulling Wilder’s approval ratings down, but a big one was the feeling by many voters that he was ignoring the job he’d just been elected to do. Notably, once Wilder dropped out of the presidential race (dramatically, as was his style, at the end of an address to the General Assembly), his approval ratings went back up – but they never returned to what they had been.
Now, that’s just one data point, but it’s also the only one we have.
The difficulty for any Virginia governor is that our election cycle doesn’t make it easy to run for president. Our gubernatorial elections come a year after presidential elections, so whatever party is out of power nationally has already had a year of speculation about who should be its nominee next time around. Youngkin, like any Virginia governor, is still learning the job and suddenly the national midterms are soon upon us. He hasn’t even had time to propose his own budget yet – under Virginia’s system, the budget he just signed was principally authored by his predecessor, just before Ralph Northam left office. It will be December 2023 before Youngkin gets a chance to submit his first budget. By then we’ll be counting down the days until the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.
Presidential campaigns are all-consuming things: Can you be both a full-time governor and a full-time candidate? Other candidates have certainly tried and succeeded. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were governors when they won their nominations. Neither of them, though, was in his first term. Maybe voters in Arkansas and Texas were more forgiving of their governors’ national ambitions. Virginia governors, though, get just a single term. Is it too much to ask the occupant to focus on the job he got elected to? How many of us would like it if an employee started sending out resumes after just six months on the job? I know some employers who would show said employee the door.
The problem for Youngkin is that the political cycle doesn’t encourage patience. Youngkin is the bright new shiny thing now. If he doesn’t run now, he risks getting eclipsed by other new shiny things. If another Republican wins the presidency in 2024, then he’s blocked completely – that Republican incumbent would surely run again in 2028. By 2032, more than a decade will have passed since Youngkin’s election in Virginia; six years will have passed since he left office. Even if Democrats win the presidency again in 2024, then the next opportunity in 2028 is still far off. For Youngkin, it’s either run now or never. In the words of the great philosopher Eminem: “Look, if you had one shot or one opportunity / To seize everything you ever wanted in one moment / Would you capture it, or just let it slip? Yo!” Youngkin’s other career advancement opportunity seems more politically practical: He’ll leave the governorship in January 2026; he could run later that year against U.S. Sen. Mark Warner.
The upside of a presidential campaign is an outsider’s chance that Youngkin might actually win. The downside is that Youngkin risks damaging himself in ways that a) make it harder for Republicans to win a majority in the General Assembly next year and b) so tarnishes his legacy that he’s not as strong a contender for that U.S. Senate seat in 2026 as he might be otherwise. It’s all a big gamble, one that not even the craps table at the new Bristol casino can resolve for him.