Americans don’t promote senators to the White House

Mark Shields's picture

As Professor Robert Schmuhl reminds us, since 1952, seven of the 14 presidential elections have been won by sitting presidents or by the incumbent vice president (George H.W. Bush), and in the other seven, the winners included: a former general (Dwight Eisenhower), a former vice president (Richard Nixon), two former governors (Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan), two sitting governors (Bill Clinton and George W. Bush) and only one sitting senator (John F. Kennedy).

Now, by folding his 2008 presidential campaign, Kansas Republican Sam Brownback becomes, according to my imperfect memory, the 33rd sitting or former U.S. senator — since Jack Kennedy’s victory in 1960 — to run unsuccessfully for the White House.

It is a pretty impressive list: Henry Cabot Lodge, Barry Goldwater, Margaret Chase Smith, Eugene McCarthy, Ed Muskie, George McGovern, Vance Hartke, Henry “Scoop” Jackson, Frank Church, Fred Harris, Birch Bayh, Edward Kennedy, Howard Baker, Bob Dole, Gary Hart, Alan Cranston, Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, Joe Biden, John Glenn, Paul Simon, Al Gore, Paul Tsongas, Bob Kerrey, Tom Harkin, Phil Gramm, Orren Hatch, John McCain, Bill Bradley, John Edwards, Carol Moseley Braun, John Kerry and Joe Lieberman.

There is a pattern here. Why are voters willing to trust the presidency to governors and not to senators? For one thing, governors (and mayors, as well) actually do something. They are accountable. Accountable for collecting taxes and for spending public money, for determining through whose property a new highway will go or whether it — or a new hospital or a new campus — will be built.

Senators make speeches. Governors make decisions. Senators hold hearings where they offer talking points on transportation reform. Governors better have real answers about unfixed potholes, tuition increases or a prison break. Ask a senator what his urgent priorities are, and his press secretary will send you his latest Position Paper on the National Agenda. A governor’s budget is a dead giveaway.

Voters seem to understand that senators are only one of 100, with totally shared responsibility and limited accountability except for their own individual voting records. A senator is free to fly to San Francisco for a speech to the World Affairs Council, and on to Aspen for a seminar on global warming, before returning to Washington in time to do a Sunday network talk show.

In contrast, most governors live with a statehouse press corps that insists on knowing where the governor is and what he, or she, is doing and with whom. If the governor does leave the state, there better be a plausible, public legitimacy for the trip.

Senators too often speak a language all their own, which is frankly incomprehensible to American civilians. When they start talking about the “failure to get a quorum” for “the motion to recommit” before the “motion to table” (which, as we all know, is “privileged” and “un-debatable”), voters’ eyes glaze over and their interest, along with their confidence, flags. Candidate John Kennedy won in 1960 by not lapsing into that Senate jargon.

Democrats in 2008 are trying again to beat the long odds. Their presidential candidates include Sens. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Chris Dodd and Joe Biden, and former Sen. John Edwards, and only one serving governor, Bill Richardson. The leading Republican candidates include two non-senators, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, along with Sen. John McCain and former Sen. Fred Thompson.

Will American voters defy the history in 2008 and dare to promote a senator to the White House? Not, you can be sure, if he or she sounds like a typical senator.


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