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The Senate curse

It's an inviting but awful place from which to launch a run for president.

January 08, 2006|Mark Z. Barabak | Mark Z. Barabak covers politics for The Times.

LAST MONTH, as Congress rushed to quit for the year, members of the Senate faced a dilemma. A must-pass bill to fund the Iraq war was steaming toward final passage. Attached to it was an amendment to permit oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

What to do? A vote against the legislation might be seen as a wartime abandonment of U.S. troops, while a vote for the bill could be cast by environmentalists as a license to despoil one of the few pristine spots left on Earth.

Senators undid the knot by waging a bipartisan filibuster that separated the Alaska drilling amendment from the defense spending bill, allowing passage.

But the dicey debate helps explain one of the striking facts of American politics: The Senate is an inviting but awful place from which to launch a run for president. With hundreds, even thousands, of bills to navigate over a career, there is danger in every ambiguous vote, like the one pitting insurgent hordes against caribou herds.

As political handicapper Charlie Cook put it, "A career in the Senate is like a paper trail of little time bombs ready to blow up."

Indeed, in the history of the republic, just two senators have gone directly from the Senate to the White House. John F. Kennedy was one. The other was Warren G. Harding. Fourteen men have served in the Senate and, after intermediate stops, gone on to be president, many ascending from the vice presidency. This discouraging history is one reason some partisans (notably those close to ambitious governors such as New Mexico Democrat Bill Richardson and Massachusetts Republican Mitt Romney) suggest the parties should look outside the Beltway for their next nominees.

But hope and desire being what they are, there is no shortage of presidential candidates among the 100 members of the Senate. Already at this early stage of the 2008 campaign, nearly a dozen are either running, thinking of running or doing little to discourage talk they might run for president. Nine others already have attempted the move up. There is no official accounting of how many senators have believed they should be president, but the number is thought to be in the thousands.

"When you're dealing with the nation's issues at the very highest level, I think it's probably human nature for anyone to want to take the next step," said Betty Koed, the assistant Senate historian.

But winning the White House means defying not just precedent but also a strong preference that Americans seem to have for a chief executive with at least some executive experience.

One of the things that makes it easier for senators to run for president than, say, a governor is the perception, fair or not, that most senators don't really do anything. As one of 100 lawmakers, nobody really misses them when they camp out in early voting states such as Iowa or New Hampshire, except on the rare occasion when they are needed on Capitol Hill for a close vote.

Most senators "are perfectly willing to take responsibility to get reelected," said Charles O. Jones, a presidential expert at the University of Wisconsin. "But they've never been in charge" the way a governor is accountable for a state's budget, its programs, bureaucracy and even, in clemency cases, matters of life and death.

As a result, most senators have little they can point to in the way of tangible achievements -- "I supported cloture on the substitute amendment to the reconciliation bill" only has so much resonance on the hustings -- and aren't nearly as well known outside the Beltway as they might think.

"Voters, especially in those early primary and caucus states, are looking for action," said Scott Reed, a Washington campaign strategist who ran Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign. "Even a guy like Bob Dole, who was a giant in the Senate both in his leadership role and in passing legislation with his name on it, was not that well known."

For good or ill -- and often the latter -- many senators have a hard time shedding the upper chamber's fusty manner, which explains why so many of their presidential stump speeches read like excerpts from the Congressional Record rather than remarks at a coffee klatch in Iowa.

"It's the nature of senatorial-ese," said Marshall Wittmann, a Washington savant who has worked for Democratic and Republican causes. "They talk in terms of 'conferences' and 'riders' and language that most Americans cannot discern." And then there's that voting record.

As Norman Ornstein explains: "As a senator, you're going to cast -- if you're around any length of time -- thousands and thousands of votes. You'll vote for omnibus bills that include 1,000 separate provisions. It may turn out two of those provisions you're not happy with, but your choices were an up-or-down vote, and you voted up. Opponents ... can rip you to shreds."

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