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.
February 23, 2011; 9:34 AM ET |
Federal government leadership
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