The Green Papers Commentary

Perhaps it's just their service in the United States Senate!

Wednesday, January 26, 2000

"The Green Papers" Staff

I have, in my previous Commentaries, made note of the fact that both former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley and incumbent Arizona Senator John McCain each face a major uphill battle for their parties' respective Presidential Nominations. Neither is the favorite among their party's leadership and neither seems to have made much of an impact on their party's traditional rank and file- those who will be most galvanized to vote in a presidential primary or attend a local caucus.

Senator McCain DOES have an outside chance- a VERY outside one- to successfully compete for the GOP Presidential Nomination. Many rank-and-file Republicans are somewhat lukewarm to their party's front-runner, Texas Governor George W. Bush- even though the hierarchy of the party hath already anointed his head with oil as the one who wears the crown bearing the traditional Republican words "It's Now HIS Turn!". McCain might yet be able to make a dent in Bush's support among that strange duck, "the likely Republican primary voter"- but only if he can prove he is a viable (read: "winning") alternative to the Texan: Republicans are, by nature of their general conservatism, a cautious lot who want "to make sure" before they change horses so boldly as the pre-Convention campaign progresses. I have already pointed out in my previous Commentaries what McCain has to do to show himself as being so viable (beginning with a victory- however miniscule in percentage or votes ahead of Governor Bush- in New Hampshire come Tuesday 1 February).

Bradley's chances for the Democratic Presidential Nomination are slimmer (read: "slim-to-none") than McCain's for the GOP's top prize. The system of delegate selection used by the Democrats is a big enough hurdle for the former New Jersey Senator to overcome- what with 18.5% of the delegate votes at the Convention reserved for the party leadership and other elected officials (the vast majority of whom are going to be favorable to Vice-President Al Gore) without their even having to be allocated through a primary or a caucus/convention! In addition, however, is the fact that Bradley just is not the favorite of a majority of the "likely Democratic primary voters", the traditional rank-and-file Democrats- the schoolteacher, other longtime civil servant, loyal labor union member, person active (though not necessarily viewed as an "activist") in a neighborhood or other community dominated by one of the traditional minorities, the creative person/artist. These all tend to be hard-core Democrats and, therefore, forgiving people who love Bill Clinton despite the President's many flaws which they are so willing to overlook, who think that- overall- Clinton has done a decent job in the White House for now just over 7 years, who understand (or, at least, will come to understand) that the President would very much like to have his loyal Vice-President as his successor and who, therefore, will champion- if they are already not doing so- Al Gore for the Democratic Nomination.

And so both Bradley and McCain, one-time United States Senate colleagues on opposite sides of that chamber's aisle, face a very similar problem: they frighten- where they do not merely cause disgust among- their respective parties' hierarchies, political elites which both like order and predictability and disdain instability and (Heaven Forfend!... and in a REPUBLICAN DEMOCRACY!!) open dissent; at the same time, the two Senators (one a former Senator, the other an incumbent) are not viewed all that favorably- in some cases, not even trusted!- by the vast majority of their party's rank-and-file "likely primary voters", the very people they would need to attract in order to have even a ghost of a chance to win their respective parties' top Convention trophy. Both the top and bottom- the elite and the grass roots- of each of the two major parties view Governor Bush and Vice-President Gore as safe, Senators McCain and Bradley as unpredictable (read: "not malleable enough" for the parties' elites, "not really on our side" for the rank-and-file). But there might be even more to the two Senators' difficulties than merely their relationships with their respective parties and that may actually be the fact that they have served as Senators in the first place!

Let's first take a look at several interesting political statistics: in the 20th century (from the Election of 1904 on: the Election of 1900 is left out- not so much because of any '00 versus '01 controversy over when the 20th century really began, but because it was a rematch pitting an incumbent President against the man he had defeated to win the Presidency four years earlier and, therefore, really counts as a 19th century contest), 33 men have been nominated for President by the two major political parties. Of these men, 13 [39.4 %] were Governors or ex-Governors in their last elective office (not counting the Vice-Presidency, which is not really a separately elected office: the nominee for Vice-President runs on a ticket with the candidate for President and I haven't met too many Americans who talk about who they are voting for in the "VICE-Presidential Election"!) while 10 [30.3%] were Senators or ex-Senators in their last elective office (again, not counting the Vice-Presidency). Even more telling is the fact that 9 of the 13 Governors/ex-Governors who were major party nominees [that is, 69.2 %] were incumbent Governors at the time of their nomination- while only 5 of the 10 Senators/ex-Senators [50% of those who were major party nominees] were sitting Senators (and this figure includes Bob Dole who was still a Senator at the time he had clinched the 1996 Republican nomination but had left the Senate by the time he was formally nominated at that Summer's GOP Convention; for sake of the argument, we will consider Dole as a major party nominee who was, at the time he was nominated, an incumbent Senator).

16 of the 33 major party Presidential nominees of the 20th century were elected to the Presidency in the subsequent general election (just a note in passing: only one major party nominee who lost an election in the 20th century subsequently won- that being Richard Nixon): of these 16, 5 [31.3%] were Senators/ex-Senators while 7 [43.7%] were Governors/ex-Governors- this is not particularly remarkable and statistically is fairly close to the breakdown for all 33 major party nominees as noted in the previous paragraph. However, 3 of the Senators/ex-Senators served as Vice-President after their Senate days (2 of these- Truman and Johnson- actually succeeded to the Presidency before being elected in their own right; the remaining one, Nixon, [as noted earlier] actually lost an election [1960] before subsequently being elected [1968 and 1972]) while only 2 of the Governors/ex-Governors subsequently served as Vice-President (both of whom- Teddy Roosevelt and Coolidge- admittedly had succeeded to the Presidency before their own elections). What this means is that 5 of 16 20th century elected Presidents [31.3%] had served as Governor in their most recent elective office, while only 2 of the 16 [a mere 12.5%] had served in the Senate as their last elective office before the White House.

When one takes a look at the 18 major party losers of 20th century Presidential Elections (again, 16 plus 18 does not add up to 33 because Nixon was both a loser and a winner before ever taking the Oath of Office as President), the statistics are even more intriguing: of the 11 losing major party nominees from 1904 through 1956, 5 were Governors (all incumbents) [a sixth loser was an ex-Governor who had been serving on the U.S. Supreme Court when nominated- Hughes in 1916] while not a single one was a Senator or ex-Senator! In 1960, Nixon was the first Senator/ex-Senator nominated by a major party to lose in the 20th century and his loss came against only the second incumbent Senator of the 20th century nominated by a major party (John F. Kennedy- the first incumbent Senator so nominated being Warren G. Harding in 1920: by the way, Harding was the only incumbent Senator to defeat an incumbent Governor for the Presidency and both nominees that year were from the same state- Ohio!). From 1964 on, 6 Senators or ex-Senators were nominated by a major party: 5 of them (Goldwater, Humphrey [Vice-President after his Senate service], McGovern, Mondale [also Vice-President after his Senate service] and Dole), however, lost; the only post- 1964 Senator/ex-Senator to win was Lyndon Johnson, who defeated Goldwater (another Senator) and had already succeeded to the Presidency as JFK's Vice-President anyway. Since 1964, 4 Governors or ex-Governors [Carter, Reagan, Dukakis, Clinton] were nominated by a major party: only 1 [Dukakis] was defeated and he lost to an incumbent Vice-President (Bush, senior); should Bush, junior (a Governor) face Gore (an incumbent Vice-President, although also an ex-Senator) this year, he might find cold comfort in his own father's one electoral success, as it is a mirror image of what Bush the son could be facing come next 7 November. My final statistic, however, might be the most telling of all: in the 20th century, 5 incumbent Presidents were defeated in their bids for re-election [Taft, Hoover, Ford, Carter, Bush] and all 5 lost to Governors or ex-Governors [Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Carter, Reagan, Clinton].

What does all this statistical gobbledy-gook actually mean? It simply is a clear indication that Americans have tended to prefer putting forth for consideration as President those who have served as Governors over those who have served as Senators (and, lest one think the 19th century was all that different from the 20th: while it is true that 6 of the 19th century elected Presidents were ex-Senators versus only 4 who were Governors/ex-Governors in their most recent elective office at the time of their election, not one of the 6 19th century President-to-be Senators was a sitting Senator when elected to the Presidency- while 3 of the 4 Governors elected to the White House in the 19th century were incumbents in that office when first elected [only James Knox Polk was an ex-Governor at the time of his election] and, besides, 2 of the 6 ex-Senators elected President in the 19th century were also ex-Governors!). The traditional reason given by most political observers for the fact that Governors are generally viewed as better Presidential Timber than Senators is that Governors gain valuable hands-on executive experience useful in the White House- experience which Senators do not have. I would argue, however, that- and this would be especially true in the 20th century as against the 19th- another reason may simply be that Senators are more used to reasoned debate and argument under controlled circumstances on either the floor of the Senate or in committee while Governors are in the State equivalent of Teddy Roosevelt's "bully pulpit" and, thus, facing the vagaries of political football day in and day out: Governors, like Presidents, are the point men- and, at times, the targets- in their respective political realms; Senators, meanwhile, are members of the most politically deliberative body in America, if not the World. Yet, the American Electorate is the most non-deliberative body in our whole political structure: which office then- Governor or Senator- best prepares a presidential contender for the slings and arrows of the election campaign?

And so this may very well be yet another problem facing both Bill Bradley on the Democratic side and John McCain on the Republican. McCain is seen as a maverick precisely because, at least for the most part, he speaks what's on his mind- even if it might be what voters might not want to hear; he is, in general, doing this not to "go negative" against his opponents but to focus on what he sees as the important issues- or at least the issues which will most help him gain political support; Bradley, meanwhile, clearly would like to run a mainly issues-oriented campaign free of any negativity- whether by his own supporters or against him by others. Both men are generally attempting to campaign for the Presidency as if they were speaking on the floor of the Senate or, at best, running for the Senate. Yet it is, in part, because they are, more or less, running these very "debating society" kinds of campaigns that they are not the favorites of the hierarchies of their respective parties nor making any significant headway among the rank-and-file of those parties. With McCain and Bradley, many voters seem to be left to merely make analogies between them and Walter Lippmann's famous description of then-New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932 as "a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be President" as they assess the two Senators; McCain or Bradley supporters might well point out that FDR did, in the end, win his party's nomination as well as the subsequent election but we are not now in a time of grave societal crisis such as that posed by the Great Depression and this fact, too- while great news for the overall well-being of the Nation- does little to aid deliberative campaigners for President such as Senators Bradley and McCain.

It has been said that few voters like negative campaigning- yet negative campaigns clearly work in their impact and influence upon those same voters come election time; likewise, the issue-oriented campaigning the average American seems to long for DOESN'T usually do much, in the end, to motivate the average voter. It may be that the two Senators might very well be paying the political price for being so... well, Senatorial... out there on the pre-Convention hustings. The question now is: how long can either Bradley or McCain go in this pre-Convention phase of the presidential campaign without slipping into a more negative mode, especially should they not do well in New Hampshire or in other early primaries/caucuses they MUST do well in to keep even their slim chances of winning their respective parties' Presidential Nomination alive? Whether they each stay "above the fray" or not, my gut feeling is that George W. Bush and Al Gore still have little to worry about from John McCain and Bill Bradley in their quest for the major parties' big prizes come the Conventions this Summer.

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