Don't Fear The Senator

generic 2008 presidential race graphic - White House and logos/symbols for Democrats and Republicans
This column was written by Robert Geilfuss.
The Senate is where presidential ambitions go to die. I see this sentence written all the time, never attributed. The sentiment, if not the sentence itself, has ensconced itself in our nation's political consciousness.

"Opponents of a senator who is running for president can make an issue of their voting record, which is often not easy to defend," claims Jamie McKown, a political scientist at the College of the Atlantic, in a recent USA Today article. Theo Lippman, in a column for The Baltimore Sun, justifies his prejudice against senators as presidential candidates with the claim that "voters have almost never picked them for the nation's top office." Wikipedia's page on U.S. presidential elections declares, "Contemporary electoral success has favored state governors. Of the last five Presidents, only George H.W. Bush had never been governor of a state," and the last senator to win the presidency was John F. Kennedy. Charles Babington of The Washington Post points out that 40 senators have failed in their bids for the presidency since 1960.

The conventional wisdom is especially relevant this year, since most of the candidates are senators. Sens. John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama are only the three most discussed candidates, but second-tier wannabes like Sam Brownback and John Edwards are — or recently were — also members of the Senate. And the non-Senate candidates — Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, Bill Richardson — are often lauded for the supposed legitimacy that comes from "outsider" status.

But it's far too early to write off the Senate's contenders. In fact, doomsday prophecies for senator-candidates rely on a totally false reading of electoral history. The truth is that senators are no more or less likely to win a general election than anybody else.

The fact pundits routinely trot out to damn a senator's chances is that only Warren G. Harding and Kennedy have been elected president while serving in the Senate, and they usually chalk this up to the problem of voting: In the Senate, politicians have to vote on a score of controversial bills, leaving a long record that, often enough, shows inconsistencies, favoritism, and general mediocrity. For obvious reasons, this is a liability for presidential candidates, as it was for John Kerry, whose record Republicans used to tar him as a waffler.

But these records simply aren't as damaging as commonly believed. While Harding and Kennedy were the only direct Senate-to-White House candidates, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, Harry Truman, Benjamin Harrison, Andrew Johnson, James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce, John Tyler, William Henry Harrison, Martin Van Buren, Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and James Monroe all served in the world's greatest deliberative body before running for president. If voting records are so important, how is this possible? It's not like records have statutes of limitation. (Vice President Nixon's involvement in McCarthyism while in Congress was certainly a consideration for many liberal voters in 1960.) Obviously, a trail of evidence is not what's keeping senators out of the White House.

A look at senators' failed campaigns shows that being a senator was almost never, in and of itself, the cause of their defeats. Senate membership was hardly the reason Kerry sent constituents letters in 1991 claiming to have both supported and opposed the Gulf war (depending on what the constituent had argued). His famous claim that he voted to fund the Iraq war before he voted not to is not exemplary of what happens to candidates trapped by arcane Senate procedures. Rather, Kerry volunteered this explanation himself in a transparent attempt to please everyone. He was trying to exploit the existence of arcane Senate procedures — in which senators vie for their favorite incarnations of a bill before it comes up for a final vote — but his hypocrisy had nothing to do with them.

Also, the number of current senators who have been elected to the White House doesn't seem so small in the context of the number of nominees. Since 1900, only six sitting senators have been major-party nominees: Harding, Kennedy, Barry Goldwater, George McGovern, Bob Dole, and Kerry. Again, service in the Senate was hardly Goldwater's, McGovern's, or Dole's chief liability. McGovern wanted to withdraw troops not only from South Vietnam but also from South Korea; disbelief in the Cold War had nothing to do with the office he held. Dole, in winning the nomination, assumed the unenviable burden of trying to unseat an immensely popular and moderate incumbent who had exposed the Republican Congress as fervidly ideological just months earlier, when it shut down the government rather than negotiate the budget. Goldwater had the political sense to write a book called The Conscience of a Conservative when conservative was a dirtier word than liberal is today. After the Cuban missile crisis, few Americans were willing to vote for a man who dropped lines like, "Let's lob one into the men's room at the Kremlin." And, well, have you seen the Daisy commercial?

So, when journalists and bloggers cite the Harding-Kennedy conundrum, the pool of comparison is neither large nor instructive. Of course, that leaves the 37 senators who failed to get nominated. Partly, that's because only one candidate can win a nomination, and, often, several senators run. And partly, it's because primary voters have the perception that the long-record disease is fatal in a general election. But that doesn't make it true. If anything, the 37 also-rans prove that primary voters' concerns are largely illogical.

The preoccupation with the electability of senators hides a much more general political reality: Every officeholder has a record, and every record can be used against a candidate. George H.W. Bush's campaign — under the direction of Lee Atwater — didn't spare Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis the Willie Horton fiasco (or its scorn for vetoing a Pledge of Allegiance bill) just because he wasn't a senator. In fact, if the press distinguished current and former governors, the conventional wisdom might easily be that a governor is the natural long shot, not a senator. Since 1920, only three sitting governors have been elected president: Franklin Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Six governors (seven if you count Thomas Dewey's 1944 and 1948 campaigns) won their party's nomination before losing the general election, compared with only four senators in the same period.

Effective politicians do not have a standard biography. They can come from any kind of background. So please, spare McCain, Clinton, and Obama the same tired line about no senator winning the White House since John F. Kennedy. Senators don't have trouble wining the presidency because they are senators; they have trouble because they're human.

By Robert Geilfuss
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