Precedents of Senatorial Presidents

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 9, 2008 | Go to article overview

Precedents of Senatorial Presidents


Byline: J.T. Young, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

While the Democrats' presidential nominee is still unknown, one thing is: They will choose a senator.

Therefore, regardless of who wins or how, this election will make history. That's because with Mr. McCain's nomination already assured, 2008 will be the first time two senators square-off for the presidency. This political novelty highlights the historical rarity of senators heading a ticket at all - much less winning the presidency.

However, comparing the current contenders with the nation's two previous "senatorial presidents" reveals important future implications.

The record of senators seeking the White House over the last century is bleak. Assigning nominees to their last elected office, incumbent presidents, vice presidents, governors and even political novices have all fared better than sitting senators. Incumbent presidents have won 13 elections - as have governors - vice presidents have won six, and political novices (William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover and Dwight Eisenhower) have won three.

Sitting senators have only won twice - John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Warren G. Harding in 1920. About the only senatorial bright spot is the fact they have fared better than their colleagues across the Capitol - no House member won the presidency in the last century. Such limited success helps explain why they are rarely nominated by either party. From 1908 to 2004, senators have received only six of the two parties' 50 total nominations - being nominated just 12 percent, and winning just 4 percent, of the time.

Such uniqueness makes for an illuminating comparison between today's aspirants and the two previously successful senators. Both Harding and Kennedy had short Senate careers - Kennedy serving just over one term and Harding only one (forgoing senatorial re-election was an agonizing decision).

Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama resemble both in this regard, with Mr. McCain the outlier by a long shot - in fact, Mr. McCain (in his fourth term) has served in the Senate longer than any two of these other four senators combined.

Neither Harding nor Kennedy was a Senate leader in a formal sense. The same applies to the three now seeking the presidency None has been a member of his or her party's elected leadership and only Mr. McCain has even served as chairman of a Senate committee.

Harding and Kennedy also had similarities once in office. Both are inaccurately associated with events simply because of their proximity to them.

Kennedy brought to office an invigorating youthfulness that seemed to capture his generation's own at his Inauguration - "the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans." He is remembered as embodying his bold and expansive "New Frontier" program. …

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