Senator to president: A new day
THE LOSERS: Since LBJ, six sitting or former U.S. senators have been nominated to run for president. None was elected.
It has been more than four decades since we last elected a sitting senator to the White House. But this year, that dry spell will end. Not only are the two presidential candidates both sitting senators, but so is the Democratic nominee for vice president. Combined, the three of them boast 65 years of experience in the U.S. Congress.
FOR THE RECORD:
Senators: A Sunday Opinion caption on Sept. 7 said that only six sitting or former U.S. senators have been nominated to run for president since Lyndon Johnson, and that none was elected. Richard Nixon, the 37th president, served as a U.S. senator from California from 1950-52. —
All sorts of reasons are given for the curious dominance of governors in presidential politics: They vote on less legislation and so can be attacked on fewer issues; they have executive experience and so are more familiar with the mechanics of governance; they reside outside Washington and so find their speech unafflicted by the oddly leaden quality that affects the locution of so many Beltway pols.
But is it a good thing for senators to be frozen out of the process? Though governors may make better candidates, it’s not clear that they’re well prepared to deal with the complex mix of personalities and parliamentary procedures that will decide whether their agenda is quickly passed or quietly strangled.
There’s no doubt that the most legislatively skilled president of the last century was one who came out of the legislative branch. Lyndon B. Johnson came to office after serving as vice president, but he had spent 12 years in the Senate (including six as majority leader), and viscerally understood that domestic success was about one thing: votes in Congress. And after decades spent learning the institution, he knew how to attain them. He let those who would filibuster drone until the last breath left their lungs, and then he slammed the Civil Rights Act through in 1964. He passed Medicare and Medicaid into law and created food stamps and Head Start and the National Endowment for the Arts.
In much of this, he was aided by a powerful sense of societal solidarity that emerged after John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the deep majorities he amassed when he crushed Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election. But presidents have squandered majorities before. Johnson came from the Senate, he knew its ways and wants, and he bent it to his will.
Johnson’s record stands in sharp contrast to the Democrats who succeeded him. Jimmy Carter, the former governor of Georgia, and Bill Clinton, the former Arkansas governor, attained the presidency in moments of great progressive promise. But both saw their momentum halted when they slammed into a Congress they did not understand and could not work with.
Carter entered office surrounded by his so-called Georgia mafia -- associates from the Georgia statehouse who lacked deep relations with members of Congress or an easy understanding of the chamber’s needs and rhythms. He was also facing the post-Nixon backlash, when Congress aggressively reasserted its oversight role, a trend he was unprepared for and had no idea how to manage. He found himself embroiled in feuds with various powerful congressional leaders, including House Speaker Tip O’Neill, and saw his agenda stall.
Some years later, Clinton committed a yet graver error. In the largest initiative of his presidency, his health-reform initiative, he sought to bypass Congress in the construction of the legislation, centering the bill’s creation in a sprawling policy process run out of the executive branch. He entrusted the process to Ira Magaziner and Hillary Clinton, neither of whom had any experience with the body that would pass the law. Relations between the president and many key members of Congress turned toxic. Some still fume about the imperious treatment they endured from Magaziner. Health reform never even came up for a vote.
In part, this is the reality behind gridlock: Presidents are increasingly unable to pass the very agendas that persuaded voters to elect them. And this is corroding public trust in the government, which seems to do less even as it’s needed more. Average presidential approval ratings have been drifting downward for about 50 years, with George W. Bush among the most unpopular in history.
The reason is simple: For all the autonomy given to the executive on matters of foreign policy, the president is still at the mercy of Congress -- in particular, the obstruction-prone Senate -- when it comes to domestic policy. In recent decades, many more wars have been launched than major domestic problems solved. At this rate, we will bring universal healthcare to Mesopotamia before we bring it to Montana.
So it is odd that we have demonstrated such a sharp aversion to electing leaders with congressional experience. Among other things, a president should certainly be the nation’s “legislator in chief.” But that’s rarely demanded of our presidential candidates. Governors may have experience governing, but progress, rather than simply competent management, requires a leader able to successfully legislate.
It should thus cheer observers that both presidential tickets this year are chock-full of legislative experience. John McCain has been in Congress for 26 years. His relationships on both sides of the aisle are deep and broad. Though he has a reputation for cloakroom volatility, he also has proved himself able to construct unlikely coalitions and attract unexpected allies on key issues.
Barack Obama, of course, has been in the Senate for a mere four years. But his staff, somewhat unexpectedly, has incredibly deep ties to the institution. Elected in 2004, the year Tom Daschle, leader of the Senate Democrats, was unexpectedly dispatched, Obama quickly hired Daschle’s chief of staff, Pete Rouse. Rouse knew the body so well that he was often referred to as the “101st senator.” By contrast, Clinton’s first chief of staff, Mack McLarty, was a childhood pal with minimal Washington experience.
Obama is joined by Joe Biden, one of the longest-serving legislators to ever appear on a presidential ticket. Like McCain, Biden’s relationships to his Senate colleagues are rich and varied, and he will know whom to call, when to call and how to approach.
Americans are often frustrated by their presidents because they sense that so much is needed and that so little actually gets done. That, however, is a state of affairs they are accidentally complicit in: The less Washington accomplishes, the more voters adore those candidates who declare themselves independent of it. And so you have the absurd spectacle of McCain, nearly a 30-year veteran of the town, presenting himself as an outsider, and Beau Biden, Joe Biden’s son, telling the Democratic convention that “even though Dad worked in Washington, he’s never been part of Washington.”
If an outsider’s persona is good for getting elected, sometimes an insider’s knowledge is necessary for succeeding once in office. When it comes to congressmen, it may take one to know one.
Ezra Klein is an associate editor at the American Prospect. He blogs at EzraKlein.com.