Have The Senators Arrived?

It is a phenomenon that has held true long enough that it has become conventional wisdom; senators don’t get elected to the highest office in the country.  The last time someone was elected straight to the Oval Office from the Senate was John F. Kennedy back in 1960.  Since then it has been an assortment of vice presidents and governors.

The logic behind the increased electability of governors over senators in presidential politics is two-fold.  Governors, in theory, have a natural advantage in that they have already served as executives.  They are tasked with balancing budgets, and dealing with unruly legislatures.  They are even commanders in chief of their state’s National Guard.  Thus, the rationale is that the President of the United States is essentially the same job as state governor only on a much larger scale.

The other side of the coin is that senators often carry with them heavy political baggage in their senate voting records.  Unlike governors, senators are held to account for hundreds, maybe thousands of votes all of which on pieces of legislation that are themselves hundreds of pages long loaded with nuances and caveats that simply lend themselves to cannon fodder during the course of an election.

Record parsing helped pick away at Kerry in 2004, it almost sank John McCain this election cycle, Hillary’s still dealing with her Iraq vote and Iran vote, and despite the fact that it has been explained dozens of times, and even endorsed by pro-choice advocates, Obama still comes under fire for certain “present” votes he made while in the Illinois Senate.

The fact is, any legislator’s record is a historical no man’s land with ideological landmines dotting the landscape.  Anyone with patience, time on their hands, and a particular Senator’s record at hand can paint that Senator as anything he or she wishes.

And these people come out of the woodworks when it comes to go time in a political season.

Thus the conventional wisdom stood.  No senators since Kennedy.  However, with Mitt’s retirement from the presidential campaign trail yesterday, there is an almost assured chance that the next President of the United States will in fact be a US Senator.  Sure, you still have Huckabee and Ron Paul both in the race, but the odds either has at actually winning the presidency are astronomical.

It is, for the sake of political theory, a little unfortunate that the general election will be between two senators; I would like to see a senator go up against a governor.  However, it is still a momentous blip on the political radar that for the first time in forty four years a senator will occupy the Oval Office.

Has the conventional wisdom broken down?  Granted there have been few governors in this race from the start, but on paper not all of them were bad candidates.  Former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore was; the cantankerous old man had the political strength of a ferret whose only contribution to the race was the phrase, “Rudy McRomney” that died about as quickly as his presidential aspirations.  Same too goes the way of Gov. Tommy Thompson who I actually kind of liked, but simply didn’t have the political skill to run a national campaign.

But then you had Bill Richardson.  Bumbling?  Yeah, a little.  He definitely needed to clean up around the edges some, but anyone who watched Obama’s first debate and his last debate would be able to tell that you can improve dramatically on the campaign trail.  On top of that, Richardson had a phenomenal resume (as he would repeatedly remind us) and even the potential for cross party appeal with for instance his NRA membership.

Likewise, Mitt Romney was not, to be fair, a bad politician.  While some may claim that he suffered from miscalculation, I would say that he suffered from being in the wrong religion in a party that cares very much about such things as well as just plain old bad luck that Mike Huckabee surged so strongly right before the actual primaries.

Bill Richardson’s downfall was that he was in now way the same political league as either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, and Mitt Romney in essence fell victim to a faction within the conservative alliance.

This leaving us with Huckabee who’s still in the hunt despite the facts on the ground.  One thing about Huckabee, though, is that he is doomed to lose the top spot on the Republican ticket because as much as Republicans are not fond of John McCain, far too many Republicans see Huckabee as a liberal in evangelical clothing.  The rest of the anti-Huck coalition probably sees him as the batshit insane-o that he is who would not only lose the general election, but lose it fantastically on embarrassingly epic proportions.

So it would seem the senators have arrived.  Or have they?  Have they ever truly departed?  These questions can’t possibly be answered after this election is put to bed, but I do think they are interesting queries to look at especially given the fact that on so many levels this is indeed an historic event.

One thing that strikes me is that every president leading back to Carter had an “and” factor to them.  In other words, they weren’t simply governors (or in one case a vice president), but governors “and” something else.

George W. Bush wasn’t just the governor of Texas, of course, but the governor of Texas and the son of a former president.  The presidential name recognition alone is worth some political coin, but also add in the fact that having a presidential father also grants you political connections and organization.  Further, Bush ran in the wake of Clinton’s presidency, and while Clinton was a popular president even through the Monica Lewinsky scandal, such things do have the tendency to prepare severe blow back.

Speaking of Clinton, he wasn’t without an “and” factor either.  For him, this would be the back to back candidacies of the self made tycoon Ross Perot.  There were, of course, issues from the first Bush’s presidency that helped oust him after four years in office, but Perot definitely mixed the dynamics up a bit.  Now, whether Perot was a spoiler or not is unclear.  It is true that Clinton had surged to a strong lead of Bush during the time that Perot was out of the race, but Bush had climbed back to within six just as Perot reentered the race in time for the debates.

It is more than possible that Clinton would have beaten Bush Sr. without Perot in the race, but we can never know definitively without a time machine, some rope, and a gag, and Perot did put the breaks on any attempt by the incumbent to make a come back.

As for that particular incumbent, he wasn’t even a governor, yet his “and” factor was easily serving for eight years under Reagan.  Now, Reagan wasn’t as popular then as he is now, back during his presidency his average approval ratings were in the upper fifties, but that’s still enough to give your veep the upper hand in an election (one may ask at this point why that didn’t work for Al Gore.  The easy answer is Monica.  Yes, Clinton had high approval ratings, and America seemed willing to forgive him for the most part.  But if you’ll remember, Al Gore largely ran away from Bill during his own presidential bid; a move that may have cost him, but also might have been necessary especially whilst going up against the socially conservative George W. Bush).

Reagan was a famous actor which not only leant him broad name recognition but also probably helped him a bit with his communication skills which to this day are legendary.

Thus we find ourselves at Jimmy Carter.  Now, I don’t particularly know if Jimmy Carter had an “and” factor or not, nor does it necessarily matter.  For now we find ourselves looking at a span of thirty years in politics.  What has changed?

Political ideologies continue to go back and forth in popularity, that hasn’t changed, and neither has the rough and tumble nature of politics.  But one thing that has changed is media.  As I look at this question as to whether or not Senators are finally considered viable presidential material, one thing that can’t be ignored is political coverage in media.

More specifically, how much of it there is.  Back in the seventies, what did you have?  Print media and network television.  Political talk radio wasn’t quite the political corner stone it is now, CNN wouldn’t be invented until the beginning of the next decade, and forget even mentioning the internet.

By comparison, political coverage in the seventies was a sharp whistle, while political coverage now is a 747 landing on the tarmac.

And this effect, believe it or not, benefits the Senators more than Governors.  Governors may play an important role in their own state, but are comparably insignificant on a national scale, and therefore aren’t prone to rate the same level of coverage in a national market.  By contrast, legislators do play on the national stage, and the media as it is designed now is geared towards maximizing their coverage over a plethora of 24 hour news networks, C-SPAN, thousands of websites online, print media, etc.

Thus, as national consumers of the political media market, US Senators and Congressmen become a much more familiar brand.  By contrast, unless a governor is coming from your own state, chances are you don’t even know who the guy is until he announces his presidential bid.

Just looking at the trend analysis of the Democratic campaign, one can see the significance of name recognition.  Hillary Clinton, who is a household name, began the presidential contest with a strong twenty to thirty point lead over the rest of her lesser known rivals overall.  Thus the uphill battle for virtually everyone else (with perhaps the exception of John Edwards) was to both connect with voters and try to match Hillary’s name recognition.

Is this at all definitive?  Obviously not, and I’ll be the first to admit I’m probably wrong here.  It is more than possible that this time out we just had a bad batch of governors running for the big prize, and once this next president leaves office we just may well go back to electing governors to the White House.

But it’s quite possible that senators have overcome the political deficit between them and governors, and it’s an interesting mystery that only future election seasons will shed light upon.

One Response to “Have The Senators Arrived?”

  1. Dynamic says:

    Carter had an “and” factor – he was a true evangelical, and we’ve all seen the way evangelicals can mobilize voters in this nation.

    I think this election cycle has seen the death of an awful lot of “conventional wisdom.” About time, too.

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