Thursday, October 11, 2012

Biden's Career Path

Dave Weigel makes an interesting aside in the midst of a preview of Joe Biden's debate style which I enthusiastically recommend. He says that after the 1988 presidential campaign fiasco, "Biden quit the race and followed the pattern of senators who’d had their dreams crushed in front of national TV audiences. He focused on the work."

That's exactly the kind of claim that goes right to that part of my brain that spent the better part of the 1980s and 1990s reading and rereading Bill James. Is there such a pattern? How common is it?

Well, the problem is that it's a little hard to do this one, at least for a quick blog post. But I'll take a shot. And guess what? The generalization holds a whole lot better than I would have expected.

1972: Ed Muskie returned to the Senate, and was Budget Committee Chair for a long stretch, and then briefly Secretary of State. I get the sense that his biggest legislative accomplishments were before his presidential campaign, but as far as I know his reputation as a serious Senator was basically the same before and after. Tom Eagleton had an excellent reputation as a serious Senator in the mid-1980s. George McGovern had eight more years in the Senate; I don't think he was particularly productive, but I think it's probably true that he "focused on the work."

1976: Does anyone really fit? Some Senators lost in the race for the Democratic nomination, but none really came all that close to winning. Bob Dole become one of the most successful Senators of his era. Scoop Jackson ran in 1972 and 1976, and died a Senator in 1983.

1980: Ted Kennedy certainly counts as perhaps the greatest example of someone who had originally sought the presidency but, after (repeated) humiliations on the national stage, wound up focusing on becoming an excellent Senator. Howard Baker and Bob Dole fit, too.

1984: Gary Hart is the counterexample, although the humiliation part doesn't come until his 1988 run. But he had already left the Senate, choosing not to run in 1986. I'm guessing that John Glenn was a more serious Senator after 1984 than before.

1988: Beyond Biden, there's Al Gore. You know about him.

1992: No one really humiliated. Bob Kerrey was re-elected once and then retired; Tom Harkin is still in the Senate.

1996: Bob Dole, of course, resigned from the Senate during his run. Phil Gramm, like Kerrey, was re-elected once and then retired. The others were Lugar and Specter.

2000: Again, no real dream-crushing. John McCain you know about.

2004: John Kerry has probably been a better Senator since then, right? Joe Lieberman continued as before, except even more sanctimonious. Re-elected once, then retired. John Edwards was on the Gary Hart path, except that his term was up in '04.

2008: Well, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, again, you know about. There was also Chris Dodd, who had a very busy two years in the Senate and then retired. If you want to count Evan Bayh, who got out very early in the cycle -- he's a clear counterexample.

(Note: I didn't include everyone, especially those with very brief campaigns, in an effort to keep this reasonably short.)

During the entire modern era, there are only a couple of Senators who ran for president without continuing on in the Senate long enough to get re-elected -- excluding, of course, those such as Clinton who were snatched out of there. Quite a few of them, including several whose presidential runs were embarrassments, wound up taking their work in the Senate more seriously than they previously had.  I would have thought that there were other examples similar to Gary Hart, who found the Senate too small after being on the big stage, or similar to Evan Bayh, who seems to decided that if he couldn't be president he'd just give up on politics. Or even Edwards, who was up for re-election and chose to go presidency-or-bust, something he shared with Fred Harris in 1972, but that's about it. Overall, it turns out that those are the exceptions; what Biden did in 1988 really does seem to be the more normal approach.


  1. I read something not long ago to the effect that if you're a politician who wants to survive a scandal, the Senate is the place to be -- the nature of the job and the lengthy terms in office make it possible to ride out a scandal in ways that governors or House members cannot. Perhaps something similar is going on here, with the added point that members can choose whether or not to run for president in a way they cannot choose whether or not a scandal is exposed.

  2. Going back even further, I think the same can be said of Robert Taft and Barry Goldwater. Although he failed in his four attempts at his party's nomination, Taft was still a productive Senator who had a significant impact on the Republican Party and American foreign policy. Similarly, although Goldwater was unsuccessful in his presidential campaign, he served another 18 years in the Senate and continued to impact politics and influence the conservative movement.

    1. Actually, Robert Taft only ran for the Republican Presidential nomination three time, in 1940, 1948 and 1952. In 1944 he deferred to Ohio's Republican Governor, John Bricker, who lost at the 1944 convention to Tom Dewey and then became Dewey's running mate. Taft bypassed the nomination battle in 1944 to run for re-election to the Senate, and he barely won his 1944 Senate race, 50.3% to 49.7% for Democrat William Pickrel. But while he failed as a Presidential candidate to even win a nomination, he was in some ways the most important Senator of his era, the driving force behind the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 that permanently changed labor law, making it more favorable to the interests of corporate management.

  3. So, a piece of political conventional wisdom that, when investigated, turns out to be mostly true? Unpossible!

  4. Wondering about the causal arrow here . . . "playing on the national stage" may make one a more effective senator b/c it increases one's influence (rather than changing one's attitude toward Senate work). Putting together a serious presidential campaign in the post-reform era means developing a (power) network of supporters and donors that "ordinary senators" just don't have. Those supporters and donors, that network, lasts beyond an election cycle--if you don't implode in scandal. (I wouldn't count the silly plagiarism changes against Biden in 1988.)

    Just speculation. I don't have any data.

    1. Agreed, but as usual, that could go either way: You can only play effectively on the national stage in the first place if you have the potential to put that power network together, which also probably means you have the potential to "focus on the work" well if that's your priority. Of course, the campaign process itself could go a long way towards turning that potential into reality, which I suppose is your point.

  5. @JB how would you count Orin Hatch? I don't think his post 2000 career has been very impressive. I kinda see him as a windbag, but that's just me. Also Hubert Humphrey went back after the 68 and 72 debacles, did he do anything much before he died? I don't really know of anything, but he was beloved both in the Senate and the House (he is one of the few Senators to give a farewell address to a joint session of Congress).


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