During the last century, the American people have shown a notable reluctance to elect sitting U.S. Senators to the nation’s highest office.
In 120 years, only two members of the Senate have succeeded in their campaigns to the White House. In 1920, the voters chose Warren Harding of Ohio, and in 1960 they selected John Kennedy of Massachusetts: both of them handsome charmers with a notorious eye for the ladies, both of them dead before their time in the midst of their first terms, and both of them mourned as fallen heroes in lavish displays of national grief. Today, we remember Harding far more contemptuously than he deserves and we recall Kennedy far more reverently than he deserves, but the unique status of the two of them remains unchallenged: as the only members of the “World’s Greatest Deliberative Body” elected directly to the Presidency since Indiana Senator Benjamin Harrison upset President Grover Cleveland in 1888.
During this same period, seven governors have triumphed in their bids for the White House – McKinley, Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Carter, Reagan, Clinton and George W, Bush. Meanwhile, prominent Senators (Barry Goldwater, George McGovern, Bob Dole) ran some of most disastrous races in history, while former Senator (and former Vice President) Walter Mondale managed to lose 49 states (to President Reagan) in 1984.
This dismal record of Senatorial failure raises serious questions for three of the current front-runners in the campaign of 2008, with Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain all holding seats in the Senate chamber (and all of them, coincidentally, re-elected or first elected in 2004).
The Democrats may be unable to avoid the “Senatorial Curse,” because the only other remaining contender (long shot John Edwards) is also a one-term Senator. Republicans, however, see McCain opposed by three candidates with the sort of executive background voters seem to prefer: two governors (Huckabee and Romney) and a famous mayor of the nation’s largest city (Giuliani). In evaluating the candidacies of sitting solons like McCain, should primary voters consider the potential impact of the long-standing “curse of the Senate”? Do governors or other administrators enjoy a natural advantage over those with exclusively legislative experience?
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.
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.