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Thune: What good is a Senate record?

John Thune has decided not to run for president in 2012, and he may have just ended his chances at running in 2016 or beyond, too. That was the analysis from the Post's Dan Balz Tuesday, who explored how Senators who stay too long in the upper chamber hurt their chances at higher office. Historical precedent shows that only two senators in the modern era have reached the highest office directly from the Senate--John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama--and they were not insiders but relative newcomers. We apparently don't like our presidents to be senators first.

This is because, Balz reports Ted Kennedy said, their votes hamstring them. When Obama considered waiting to run another election year, Kennedy urged him not to. Staying too long in the Senate and having a track record--gasp!--"finishes you as a national political leader in this country," Kennedy reportedly said. "You just can't do it. It's not possible."

What does this say about this country's taste in leaders? That we like them to be a clean slate--unburdened by opinions, decisions and actions they've taken in the past? That we would rather elect someone we hardly know than someone who has created prominent legislation, who has a lengthy track record that lets us follow his or her decisions, who has negotiated compromises and persuaded skeptical party members as a leader in the Senate? If so, it's a disturbing but telling insight about what we value--or don't--in our leaders.

The traditional thinking about sitting senators becoming president--a refrain heard so often during Obama's campaign--is that they don't have the same chief executive experience that a governor can call upon. Governors, especially of big states, have balanced budgets, run complex administrations and negotiated tricky legislative issues between squabbling state representatives and senators. While I don't necessarily agree that presidents must have had chief executive experience first, this rationale for why current senators rarely become president is a good one.

Another increasingly common line of thought in today's political atmosphere--that senators are too associated with Beltway politics and D.C. insider-ness, while governors are less tainted by the ways of Washington--is also understandable, if simplistic. The Senate is without question a dysfunctional institution, and being associated with it could increasingly become more a liability than an attribute. Its arcane rules and procedural maneuverings (especially lately, as it has been locked in partisan gridlock) have not made this body of leaders look terribly effective, to say the least.

Still, it is an explanation I can feel more comfortable with than one that says the longer your voting record, the shorter your chances at appealing to enough people to be president. It makes sense, of course, just not good sense: Whether we agree or not with a senator's extended decision-making record, at least he or she has one we can turn to to decide what they might do in the future. We may disagree with some of our potential presidents' past decisions, but at some point, I'd hope a track record of effective legislation creation and wise decision-making might outweigh those differences. Kennedy is surely right about this unfortunate truth of politics. But that doesn't make the idea right, either.

By Jena McGregor

 |  February 23, 2011; 9:34 AM ET |  Category:  Federal government leadership , Government leadership , Presidential leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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What does this say about this country's taste in leaders?

Actually it's more that the political process won't allow anyone with an opinion to be a political leader. Just ask why isn't our nation's best running for office. The process of running for office has become so divisive the press and the opposing party will hang you if you are not 100% the opposite of them.

Posted by: gr8gozo | February 24, 2011 11:02 AM

When Obama considered waiting to run another election year, Kennedy urged him not to. Staying too long in the Senate and having a track record...

Yes, that's why we have a Community Organizer in Chief.
Kennedy/Democrats did not want Americans to know that Obama was an ultra liberal who never reached across the aisle and the leftist media refused to vet him but merely served as his cheerleaders...

Posted by: thejames1225 | February 24, 2011 9:21 AM

YES BUT!!! A little more "track record" of Obama and we might not have the mess we have now - a "leader" that thinks cheer leading and "community organizer" platitudes constitute leadership. I refused to vote for him because I believed him to be callow politician just as Rev Wright proclaimed. I suspect that if he had more of a track recored more voters would not have voted for him either. Frankly I see no way out of this mess because the liberal left and inexperienced citizens will continue to vote for Obama and then accept all the excuses for why we are in such a mess. More folks need to remind themselves of the work or play mate who can always explain why they were unsuccessful but ignore the work or play mate who succeeds.

Posted by: fcrucian | February 24, 2011 9:20 AM

"Obama took it several steps further - in addition to having no US Senate record, he also had no Illinois Senate record either. And for that matter, he has shown absolutely no 'records' whatsoever - from High School onwards. Brilliant!"

Well, yeah, but it goes even further back than that. Obama's curious habit of not having records of anything goes all the way back to his birth. And on those rare occasions when we do have a record, we're told that it doesn't mean anything. Barry Soetoro's was listed as a Muslim in his elementary school records? Ignore the man behind the curtain! Whom are you going to believe, the Obamessiah, or your lying eyes?

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Posted by: zhenge755 | February 24, 2011 1:52 AM

Obama took it several steps further - in addition to having no US Senate record, he also had no Illinois Senate record either. And for that matter, he has shown absolutely no "records" whatsoever - from High School onwards. Brilliant!

Americans only want to be entertained, and thus, a nearly fictional character was painted on to the blank canvas named Barack Obama.

Posted by: pgr88 | February 24, 2011 12:56 AM

Thus why Obama, who had further ambitions, voted present so many times in the state senate. If you vote, they can then pin you down on what you really believe.

Posted by: Marin823 | February 23, 2011 10:09 PM

This is nothing new nor surprising. The last Sentor to elected President was JFK in 1960. Senators deliberate and pontificate. They also compile legislative records which can come back to haunt them. Governors however actually have responsibility and accountability of an executive nature which is similar- on a smaller scale- to the responsibilities for the Presidency. Our best presidents in the past century, FDR, Reagan, even Clinton were sucessful governors before they ascended to the Presidency.

Posted by: jkk1943 | February 23, 2011 10:06 PM

Good observations Ms. McGregor. I've heard the same reasons (executive experience and perception as beltway insider) and find them valid in at least appearance.

The Senate became a broken body with the 17th Amendment which sealed the fate of federalism and made the Senate redundant with the House.

I think one you missed is a bit of a fusion of the two vulnerabilities. Senators lead by manipulating committees. Presidents lead alone.

The recent history of the Health Care reform package is a case in point. The President gave some vague bullet points of what he wanted, and let the committees do the hard work. Leaders are expected to frame the vision with enough specifics to define the program, and let the legislators deal with the minutia. That particular initiative was essentially headless, and a ungainly monstrosity of partisan and special interest pandering was the outcome.

The Senate voting record can haunt as you point out. Senate votes are less about individual opinion and more about partisan gamesmanship. But the typical American voter treats those votes as an individual's position, leaving a candidate to explain the vote wasn't his or her view, but was politically expedient at the time. That won't go over well.

Good thoughts - good discussion. Thanks for sharing.

Posted by: RichmondGiant | February 23, 2011 1:13 PM

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