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With Incumbents Struggling, Former Officeholders Stage Comebacks

California's then-Republican Gov. Ronald Reagan, in November 1974 in Sacramento, Calif., with Democratic Gov.-elect Jerry Brown. Nearly 40 years later, Brown is again serving as California governor. During his first run for that office, he was helped by name recognition: His father had been governor, as well.
California's then-Republican Gov. Ronald Reagan, in November 1974 in Sacramento, Calif., with Democratic Gov.-elect Jerry Brown. Nearly 40 years later, Brown is again serving as California governor. During his first run for that office, he was helped by name recognition: His father had been governor, as well.

Things were better in the old days.

Lots of people feel that way — particularly when the current state of politics inspires such despair. Maybe for that reason, former officeholders are much in demand these days.

In Philadelphia, there's a move afoot to draft Ed Rendell, a former Democratic mayor and governor, to run for mayor again after 13 years' absence from City Hall. Three states already have repeat governors who had previously been out of office an average of 16 years.

In many places, it's been out with the new and in with the old.

"They just said, enough of this nonsense that's going on over there," says Ron Erhardt, one of a dozen state legislators in Minnesota who were re-elected last fall after spending some time out of office. "We're a better state than is being pushed around by these folks who are getting nothing done."

It's not a huge trend. Not all former politicians are seen as sages more capable than the current incumbents.

But plenty of people are open to the idea that the old guys and gals might have had better ideas about how to run things than the elected officials who are currently messing things up.

"With all the recent talk of shutdowns, fiscal cliffs and debt ceilings, and the general sense that our politics are broken or dysfunctional, people are longing for a time when politics seemed to work and politicians seemed to get things done," says Lara Brown, program director of the public management program at George Washington University.

Prepared For Comebacks

California Democrat Jerry Brown was elected to a third term as governor of California in 2010. His second term had ended back in 1983.

He's now seen as easily the dominant figure in state politics, getting nearly everything he wants from the Legislature and helping to put the state's finances back into some kind of order.

"Sometimes public officials actually learn from their previous mistakes, as I think is the case with Jerry Brown," says Stanford University political scientist Bruce Cain.

Brown was one of five former governors trying to win back their old jobs in 2010. Two others also won: Republican Terry Branstad of Iowa and Democrat John Kitzhaber of Oregon.

All three now appear to be safe bets for re-election next year, benefiting from the lack of political bench strength in their states.

"Part of what goes on with these cases is just simple name recognition, which is a very big resource for any politician who has it," says Bill Lunch, a political scientist at Oregon State University.

That may be why Florida Democrats appear willing to nominate former Gov. Charlie Crist for another term. He governed as a Republican, ran for Senate in 2010 as an independent, and has since discovered his inner Democrat.

Experience Matters

Name recognition is one reason dynasties have always been a part of American politics, from the Adams family to the Bush presidencies.

"You can't bring back Bill Clinton, so his wife is the next best thing," says David Crockett, a political scientist at Trinity University in San Antonio.

But in many cases, people are holding out for the original — not a relative, but the specific person who has held the job before.

Part of this may be nostalgia for their former tenure. If times were good on their watch, why not let them take control again?

Not many Californians, however, remember much about how Brown governed back in the 1970s, Stanford's Cain says. Instead, they were attracted by the fact that he had plenty of experience, as governor and in a number of other political roles since.

"Nostalgia did not factor into Jerry Brown's election as much as a reaction to his predecessor" — the Republican movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger — "who had to learn politics on the job," Cain says. "There is a tendency in politics to cycle back and forth between new people who promise new approaches, and old, steady hands."

No Longer LBJ's Town

That might be what's driving political nostalgia in Washington. Barack Obama was elected president with less experience than any of his modern predecessors.

Obama's not the only relative newbie.

As the current Congress got underway in January, 36 percent of the House members were either freshmen or sophomores. (Eight House members had just been re-elected after spending at least a couple of years out of office.)

Thirty senators had served no more than two years in the chamber. At the state level, lack of on-the-job experience is even more pronounced.

After voting in so many newcomers and outsiders who haven't been able to agree on much, there's been a lot of pining for old-timers who knew how to get things done. There have been endless evocations during Obama's tenure of Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan being able to get along in the 1980s when they served, respectively, as the Democratic House speaker and GOP president.

Obama has also frequently been compared unfavorably with the wheeling and dealing demonstrated by Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, who managed to push through any number of landmark bills during the 1960s, including the Voting Rights Act and the creation of Medicare.

Bring Back The Old Band

But times have changed. If you brought back LBJ — or Reagan or Clinton — they would find that making deals and winning votes from the opposition party is practically impossible just now.

"When Johnson was president, it wasn't arm-twisting that produced legislation," says Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution. "He had [Senate GOP leader Everett] Dirksen and half of the Republican Party willing to work with him. The parties are tribalistic now."

The very fact that times and circumstances have changed, however, explains why some voters might want to try to turn back the clock and give retreads another spin.

"The tenor of American politics is very polarized, and that makes politicians look pathologically incapable," says Crockett, who has studied restoration politics. "We look back and imagine there was a time when things looked better, so why not bring back the people who ran things then."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.