An honest answer to that question requires a more complete examination of party nominees and their performance over the years. First, the “gubernatorial advantage” is largely a myth. Yes, seven governors won their races, but governors lost eight other races when they ran --Charles Evans Hughes, James M. Cox, Al Smith, Tom Dewey (twice), Adlai Stevenson (twice), and Michael Dukakis. It’s true that governors won their parties’ nominations far more frequently than Senators, but the gubernatorial title hardly provides some guarantee of general election success.
Moreover, it’s hard to believe that the American people make some conscious evaluation of the specific nature of a candidate’s official experience, imposing a reliable preference for executive over legislative backgrounds, when making their final decisions at the ballot box.
In 2000, for instance, George W. Bush could point to more administrative experience than Al Gore. He had, after all, served six years as Governor of Texas and run several business enterprises (with mixed success), while Gore’s career consisted entirely of Congressional and Senatorial terms, along with his eight years in the ceremonial and advisory role of Vice President. Nevertheless, if the issue of experience came up at all in the course of the campaign, Gore won the argument as the “more experienced” candidate – and actually won the popular vote as well.
Four years later, voters found plenty of reason to vote against John Kerry – inconsistency on issues, inflated Vietnam record, obnoxious personality, insufferable wife. No one emphasized, however, his complete lack of executive experience (other than two years in the meaningless, ceremonial position of Lt. Governor of Massachusetts). Kerry’s 20 years of Senate service worked to qualify him, not to disqualify him, for the U.S. Presidency. Given all his other obvious drawbacks as a candidate (just imagine four years of droning, pompous Presidential speeches by John Kerry!), it makes no sense to single out his Senatorial background as the basis for his defeat: it’s hard to imagine he would have fared better had he been the Governor of Massachusetts rather than U.S. Senator.
Even if he had served in an executive position somewhere far beyond the Beltway, Kerry (with his posh, Skull-and-Bones background) couldn’t have run credibly for the White House as an outsider determined to clean up the mess in Washington. The same problem may afflict another son of privilege from Massachusetts, Mitt Romney – even though he holds a gubernatorial rather than Senatorial credential. Public perceptions as an “outsider” vs. “insider” seldom hinge on Congressional service rather than gubernatorial service. For instance, Ron Paul may have served nine terms – count ‘em, nine! – as a member of the United States House of Representatives, but he’s still an obvious outsider and rebel when it comes to the Washington power structure. On the other hand, Mitt Romney’s never served in Congress (though he lost a Senate race in 1994), but his background as a multi-millionaire corporate honcho and son of a former governor and presidential candidate, marks him as a national (and, in fact, international) insider. Two long-time Senators – Barry Goldwater and George McGovern – ran campaigns as insurgents and agents of radical ideological change. They both lost disastrously, but their Senate service never discredited their posture as against-the-grain outsiders.
The main reason that Senators most often lose their bids for the presidency involves their long and public voting records, rather than insider credentials or lack of administrative experience. Every member of Congress casts literally hundreds of votes every year, and each of those recorded positions offers abundant opportunities for controversy or distortion. Aside from confusing procedural or parliamentary votes, a Senator sees countless pieces of legislation that never make it to a President’s desk – the same way that a state legislator commits himself on innumerable bills that never come before the governor. Most resolutions, bills, amendments, and other proposals confronting a legislative body will fail – either tabled or voted down in that house, or defeated in the other house.
This means, in short, that any Senator compiles a far more detailed and distortable record than a governor who’s served for a comparable period of time. Moreover, the executive position of governor or Mayor provides a better opportunity for shepherding compromise or taking credit, even when you’re not directly responsible for the accomplishment. President Bush claimed credit for working well with the Democrats in the Texas legislature during his terms as governor, even though much of the elaborate wheeling-and-dealing benefited from the sure hand of Democratic Lt. Governor Bob Bullock. Mitt Romney forever will be associated with “Health Care Reform” in Massachusetts (for better and worse), even though Democrats in his legislature crafted most of the details of the legislation which the governor ultimately signed.
In the nature of his job, an executive can associate himself with accomplishment and compromise while a legislator more often gets connected to controversy and confrontation.
In this sense, the short Senate resumes of the two leading Democrats (Obama’s been in Congress only three years, and Hillary’s been there only seven) may actually prove an advantage when compared to John McCain’s quarter century in Congress and the countless conflicts in which he’s played a prominent role. At the same time, McCain’s military service clearly equips him with superior executive and national security experience to his lightly-credentialed Democratic rivals: the Arizona Senator served 22 years in active duty and, after his return from Vietnam, commanded the largest attack squadron in the Navy.
Concerning the “Senatorial Curse” purportedly applied to Presidential candidates, McCain seems especially well-situated to shatter the spell. For one thing, if he wins the nomination he’ll surely run against a fellow senator – there’s no chance the Dems will nominate someone other than Clinton or Obama. If a Senatorial credential hurts more than it helps (and it might), who’s to say which Senator will suffer more?
Then there’s also the role precedent: the last sitting senator to win the White House was Jack Kennedy-- like McCain, a wounded Naval war hero and, like the embattled Arizonan, a student of history who’s willing and eager to break tradition. No matter what, we’re all-but-certain to get a major first on Inauguration Day, 2009: first female president, or first African-American, or first Italian-American, or first Mormon, or first professional one-time pastor, or first candidate elected to his initial term above the age of 70. Regardless of the choice of the American people in the next few months, they can hardly avoid making history.