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Who Said Senators Can't Be President?

Fresh from laying claim to the Democratic presidential nomination, Barack Obama was back on the Senate floor Wednesday, crossing paths with the man he chose as his mentor as a freshman three years ago: Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman. 

A Connecticut Democrat-turned-independent, Lieberman is backing Obama’s Republican rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain, and even participated in a conference call attacking the Illinois Democrat on Wednesday. But the tug felt by the older man was evident on the Senate floor, and Lieberman didn’t hide his pride later in how far his onetime young charge had come. 

“I congratulated him and I said, obviously I’m supporting John, but I was proud of him,” Lieberman said. “This is a place where, over the decades, people who have disagreed have been able to maintain a relationship, and hopefully we can do that.” 

History has already left its mark on this presidential campaign, but for the Senate, the most important fact may be this: Never before have two sitting U.S. senators run head to head as the nominees for the two major parties. 

Politics doesn’t get more personal, as seen in the Obama-Lieberman encounter. In a single stroke, the contest wipes away the old adage that senators make ineffective presidential candidates, and it will almost certainly force some soul-searching among the 98 left behind. 

Younger senators of Obama’s generation looked around Wednesday and realized that whoever won, they would know the next president of the United States. “I think it’s pretty cool,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). “I look at it as an opportunity to take a relationship I had just started building in the Senate and build it even better with one of those guys when they get into the White House.” 

The more jaded warned that familiarity can also breed contempt. And for all the collective pride that the Senate had made it to the presidential finals, there was a clear-eyed understanding that McCain and Obama will spend the next five months running away from their old colleagues as much as seeking their support. 

“We’ve always had at least two running for president. We just haven’t had two who were successful,” said Senate Republican Whip Lamar Alexander, who ran for president himself while a Tennessee governor. “The country doesn’t want a Washington-based president. The country wants a change, ... and the success of McCain or Obama has to do with the fact that neither one looks like a typical Washington-based senator. 

“McCain is sort of the anti-senator senator, and Obama is young, African-American and new.”
That may be the greatest contradiction of this senator vs. senator election: a call for change by two members of the nation’s oldest political club. 

“It shows how much the political system looks at individuals and not the larger institutional context from which they come,” said Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.). “The Founding Fathers intended us to be inert, and we’ve expanded that ability to a point where a single senator can block action.” 

But the forces unleashed may also change that club: “It could make senators bolder and more independent,” says Princeton University historian Julian Zelizer. 

And the two campaigns will certainly drag the Senate onto the national stage as a proxy battleground for McCain and Obama. 

The recent McCain-Obama skirmish over a greatly expanded GI education benefit for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan is such a case. Obama won that round as Senate Republicans deserted President Bush and the Arizona maverick and supported the package, costing as much as $52 billion over the next 10 years. And Democrats could do the same after Labor Day by resurrecting a veto fight with the White House — and implicitly McCain — over health insurancefor the children of low-income families. 

McCain, given his much longer record in the Senate, has to work harder than Obama to shed the Washington label. The continued controversy over former lobbyists in the McCain campaign illustrates this burden. Yet it can’t be ruled out that he will use the Senate floor as a place to counterpunch the better-financed Obama on tax and energy issues, for example.

After losing his run for the White House in 2000, the Arizona Republican threw himself back into the affairs of the Senate. And while often operating at odds with the Bush administration, he built close relationships with a cadre of younger members such as Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.), who admits he is more excited by this presidential election than any other in his time in Washington.

Obama has far less history in the Senate and once likened the intrigue in the Senate to the Peloponnesian Wars. But he is also such a new, less-defined personality that part of his appeal is that so many senators can project their own ambitions onto his candidacy, whether in hopes of serving in his Cabinet or to advance some policy goal.

The most sensitive Senate nerve may be that of Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, who has been a rare Senate friend for McCain and remains an informal adviser without yet endorsing his candidacy.

Both Vietnam veterans, the two have very different views on Iraq, and Hagel was a key part of the Democratic victory on the GI Bill prior to Memorial Day. “Who Speaks Up for the Rifleman” is a chapter title in his recent book.

These strains have sparked suggestions that the Nebraskan, who is retiring this year, could yet endorse Obama, with whom he has worked on some modest bills and shares a berth on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. This seems unlikely at this stage, though it can’t be ruled out that he could be part of a future Obama Cabinet.

Before this year, former senators have run head to head against one another, most recently Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey in 1968. But only two sitting senators, Warren Harding and John F. Kennedy, have gone directly to the White House, and neither had served long in the chamber.

The 19th century saw instances in which sitting senators ran unsuccessfully as regional candidates in larger presidential fields, such as 1836. And in 1824, Andrew Jackson, then a senator from Tennessee, won a plurality in a four-man field but ultimately lost when Henry Clay, who was the speaker of the House, finished poorly and threw his support to John Quincy Adams.

Both Adams and William Crawford, the fourth presidential candidate, were former senators, and the Washington intrigue was dubbed by some historians as the “Last of the Old Order.”

Four years later, Jackson came back and won outright, ushering in what some called the “Age of Jackson” or the “Age of the People.”

But in his history of the Senate, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) had a different label, which echoes now: “The Coming of Age of the Senate.”

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