In the 2008 Election, An Historic Overlooked First

Crossposted at Daily Kos

Every student of American History knows that only two serving United States Senators (Warren G. Harding in 1920 and John F. Kennedy in 1960) have ever been elected directly to the Office of President of the United States.  Add James Garfield in 1880 as the only serving member from the United States House of Representatives and that’s all the serving legislators ever who have gone directly from the national legislature to the White House since 1789.

Barring a major and unexpected surprise, another first will occur in presidential politics in November 2008: for the very first time in our political history, nominees of both major political parties will be serving United States Senators.  Mitt Romney’s withdrawal from the Republican race today also ensures a first in American politics since the 1960 Election: it’s a near certainty that a serving United States Senator will be elected President.

In the intervening forty eight years since JFK’s election, dozens of serving Members of Congress had tried, with most of them failing miserably.  In fact, only four even became their party’s nominee — Goldwater ’64, McGovern ’72, Dole ’96, and Kerry ’04 — only to lose in the general election.

Is this historic first an utter coincidence?

John Kennedy, Warren Harding, and James Garfield

For years we have heard from political analysts, pundits, and historians that governors had the best chance of becoming president.  After all, four of the last five presidents were former governors — Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush.  The fifth was the incumbent Vice President in 1988, George H.W. Bush.

Legislators, it was said repeatedly, did not have the ‘Vision Thing’ and did not think in terms of the big picture.  In the past, most sounded like boring technocrats who could only articulate the finer points of this or that pending, obscure legislation in either chamber.  And, how were such legislative proposals usually received in the rest of the country?  Not particularly well, I think, even if they made rational sense (mention SCHIP to the average person on the street and you would probably get a blank stare).  Fair or not, much of the country saw these “solutions” through a prism in which their perception of Congress includes mistrust and, in some cases, outright contempt for its inner workings.  

What accounted for this rather poor historical showing by serving national legislators?  The reasons were many.  Among them

 1. Lack of executive, managerial, and leadership experience.  It may help to be a former governor.  But simply being a governor is not sufficient.

 2. Inability to speak in plain English and instead resorting to ‘Legislativese,’ i.e., excessive use of acronyms or obscure terms holding little or no meaning for many, if not, most of the voters.

 3. Inability to effectively defend their legislative record.

 4. Inability to compete with the lure (and myth) of the incorruptible outsider (governor or military general) riding into town to rescue the country’s political system.

So, what explains this year’s anomaly?  In addition to having (mostly) ineffectual or unknown or tarnished governors (Jeb Bush, anyone?), it is not surprising that the country is now turning to legislators with national experience.  With the operations of government so screwed up under the Bush Administration, it may be that it is looking for someone, for a change, to make government work for everyone.  And, simultaneous with that, chart a different course for the country.  

Does this favor change or experience?  In some respects, all three remaining contenders will represent change.  If elected, John McCain will be the oldest president ever — at 72 years old, beating Ronald Reagan’s record by 3 years.  The other two represent change simply by who they are: Hillary Clinton would be the first female and Barack Obama the first African-American.      

One of the reasons, I think, Barack Obama’s rise can be explained is that he doesn’t talk on the campaign trail like your typical legislator.  Better than the others, he perhaps recognized early on that the country needed leaders who could speak to the “Big Picture” questions, instead of rolling out 10-point policy plans that may be popular in some quarters here in Washington, DC.  Such detailed plans, in any case, rarely meet approval from a press corps too enamored with sensationalism and the horse race aspects of the election.  Al Gore talked a lot about this in his book, The Assault On Reason.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has consistently stressed competence and emphasized her “thirty five years of experience” in debates and campaign rallies, along with a return to the relative peace and prosperity of the Clinton Years.  Will it be sufficient to propel her over the finish line?  We will find out in the coming weeks.  

The candidate who will ultimately emerge successful, I believe, will be the one who can best frame (and answer) these important questions

 1. What does it mean to be an American in today’s complex, interdependent world?  

 2. Given the disaster and quagmire that is the Iraq Occupation, what is America’s role in the world?

 3. What ought to be the country’s top priorities?

 4. How equitable is our society, as presently structured? (a key concern of John Edwards)

To summarize, some of the reasons serving legislators were, until now, rarely elected directly to the White House included (1) their inability to speak in clear English, (2) failure to articulate big ideas and, (3) constantly having previous votes in Congress parsed to death and criticized, thus putting them on the defensive.  Therefore, such candidates were often unable to follow one of the cardinal rules of national campaigns: “Campaign in poetry; govern in prose.”

One of the long-standing conventional wisdoms of presidential politics is about to be debunked.  Under the right circumstances, serving legislators can be elected president.



  1. In the three examples I gave above, JFK ran against Vice President Richard Nixon in 1960; Warren Harding’s 1920 opponent was Governor James Cox; and James Garfield was opposed by Civil War General Winfield Scott Hancock in 1880.

    • Tigana on February 8, 2008 at 06:15

    come back….

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