Handicapped on the Hill: It Is Difficult to Be a Career Legislator and Especially a Leader of a Legislature, and to Look and Sound like a Leader-A Plausible President

By Will, George F. | Newsweek, October 27, 2003 | Go to article overview

Handicapped on the Hill: It Is Difficult to Be a Career Legislator and Especially a Leader of a Legislature, and to Look and Sound like a Leader-A Plausible President


Will, George F., Newsweek


Byline: George F. Will

Washington, with the highest concentration of television cameras per acre in this galaxy, and with more journalists per capita than is wholesome, makes national names out of legislative luminaries such as Gary Hart, Birch Bayh, Howard Baker, Richard Lugar, John Glenn, Joseph Biden and other failed seekers of presidential nominations. Yet it is well known that only three serving members of the national legislature have been elected president--James Garfield, Warren Harding and John Kennedy.

This year it is notable that the four serious Democratic presidential candidates from Congress--Sens. John Edwards, John Kerry and Joseph Lieberman and Rep. Dick Gephardt--are making smaller waves so far than a governor of a small state (Howard Dean of Vermont) and a general from a small war (Wesley Clark, conqueror, from the air, of Serbia).

Who can explain all this? Christopher DeMuth, that's who. He is head of the American Enterprise Institute, and author of a soon to be published (in the January-February American Enterprise) essay "Governors (and Generals) Rule."

In it he sorts through the 88 winning and losing major-party candidates in the 44 elections that have produced 31 elected presidents since 1828, the beginning of the politics of mass mobilization. He divides them into five categories--governors, military leaders, legislators, statesmen and activists (e.g., William Howard Taft, William Jennings Bryan), and vice presidents.

Governors and generals are 55 percent of elected presidents (17 of 31) and 52 percent of presidential nominees (46 of 88). The pool of legislators is much larger than the pool of governors, but only three of the 31 elected presidents came from legislative backgrounds--and two, Harding and Kennedy, were, to say no more, inattentive to their Senate duties, with little involvement in legislative dealmaking.

Executives make decisions. Legislators make speeches, attend committee meetings, cast votes and leave a paper trail of positions taken and poses struck, mostly without consequences clearly ascribable to them as individuals. A senator is 1 percent of, and a representative is 1/435th of, one half of one branch of government. So legislators have less accountability than governors, who, not surprisingly, are more apt to have a leader's demeanor. That demeanor is, of course, part of the training and job description of a general.

Leaders of legislatures make compromises in order to broker concessions to build coalitions to form majorities. This bending and trimming of principles is crucial to democratic governance but interferes with creating a profile of leadership. …

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Handicapped on the Hill: It Is Difficult to Be a Career Legislator and Especially a Leader of a Legislature, and to Look and Sound like a Leader-A Plausible President
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