Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Mirror

I repeated the cliche that most Senators see a president when they look into the mirror; Ezra Klein doubts it:
So who are all these senators who are keeping their presidential ambitions so tightly controlled? I know Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell don't see a president when they look in the mirror. I don't think Chuck Grassley or Max Baucus consider themselves likely presidents, nor do Ron Wyden or Mike Enzi. Is Amy Klobuchar planning a run? Chuck Schumer? John Barraso? Jay Rockefeller?
Well, he's right that not every Senator is planning a run, and it's true that only 16 Senators have become president (Obama was the first since Nixon, although Nixon ended a run of four out of the first five postwar presidents). Those are small odds! But over the course of their careers...well, let's look at the Senate in 1985. That's long enough ago that presumably those who were going to run have done so, but recent enough that it's easier to get a handle on actual candidacies, which is somewhat easier after nomination reform in the early 1970s.

So, how many Senators from the 99th Congress ran for president? Just eyeballing it, I count Goldwater, Cranston, Wilson, Hart, Dodd, Biden, Simon, Lugar, Quayle, Harkin, Dole, Kerry, Kennedy, Laxalt, Bradley, Glenn, Specter, Thurmand, Hollings, Gore, Gramm, and Hatch. That's 22. I'd add four more who were frequently mentioned as presidential candidates and probably did at least preliminary work for it: Bumpers, Nunn, Mitchell, Rockefeller. And then two more who were VP nominees, Eagleton and Bentson (with the latter certainly counting the previous category as well).

That's 28 out of 100 who were actually involved in presidential politics. I'd be shocked if any fewer than another dozen thought about it in some semi-serious way but passed. And then still others who considered it as a future option, but  whose careers were cut short by electoral defeat, scandal, early death, or other misfortunes well before they thought they were ready. Oh, and people on VP short lists (Hatfield, at least, from that list). In other words, I'd be surprised if half the Senate hadn't thought of themselves as presidential material to some extent.

Now, I'm assuming something that I can't know is true for a fact, which is that  a bit of proximity to the road to the White House causes a reaction that never really goes away. Did Strom Thurmand, in 1985, think of himself as a future president? Of course not. Did his campaign almost 40 years earlier still affect him? Well, anecdotally, that's what the people who've been through it tend to say.

OK, but even if you go along with all of that, we're still only at 50 of 100. But the other 50 know those people, and work with them, and -- I guarantee it -- think that quite a few of those 50 are bozos who should be nowhere near the Oval Office. At least not compared to a serious Senator like themselves. Which doesn't quite mean that they see a president in the mirror. No, they see someone vastly superior to a president.

Postscript: I like this game! Here's 1995, ten years later: McCain, Dodd, Leiberman, Biden, Graham, Simon, Mosely-Braun, Lugar, Harkin, Dole, Kennedy, Kerry, Kerrey, Smith, Bradley, Glenn, Specter, Santorum, Thurmand, Hollings, Thompson, Gramm, and Hatch. That's 23; also semi-sorta-possible candidates Bumpers, Nunn, Ashcroft, Frist, Rockefeller, Feingold, and VP short listers Feinstein and Hatfield, and maybe Hutchison? That's 31, and I wouldn't be surprised if a couple more names from that Senate wind up on the list eventually. Sharp eyed readers are welcome to let me know who I missed, or of course to argue against anyone I included, on either list.

1 comment:

  1. One often cited reason for why senators have a relatively hard time reaching the presidency (or at least they seem to be nominated a lot more often than they win) is that they cast a lot more votes than, say, a governor, and it is easy for their opponents to use these votes against them.

    It's not surprising, therefore, that the senators who have become president have tended to have been in the senate for much a shorter time than the senators who have lost presidential elections. Here are the times listed on the site you provided:

    Monroe: 4 yrs
    Quincy: 5
    Jackson: 3
    Van Buren: 7
    W.H. Harrison: 3
    Tyler: 9
    Pierce: 5
    Buchanan: 11
    A. Johnson: 5
    B. Harrison: 6
    Harding: 6
    Truman: 10
    JFK: 7
    LBJ: 12
    Nixon: 3
    Obama: 3

    The average is 6.2 years. Considering only postwar presidents, the average is 7 years. Now compare that with the postwar nominees who have lost:

    McCain = 21
    Kerry = 19
    Gore = 8
    Dole = 27
    Mondale = 12
    McGovern = 5
    Humphrey = 15
    Goldwater = 11

    The average there is 14.8 years, more than twice as much as the average for those senators who have won.

    We also need to consider the mitigating circumstances in individual examples. Gore was only Senator for 8 years, but he won the popular vote in 2000. LBJ was in the Senate for a long time, but he got to the White House via the vice presidency first, and besides, his opponent was a long-time Senator.

    Obama is the third sitting Senator in history to win the presidency (after Harding and JFK), and 2008 is the only election ever in which both nominees were sitting senators. The significance of this, I think, is that sitting senators usually have nothing higher on their resume. Nixon had been vp for eight years, and LBJ and Truman were already president.


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