Politics

Capitol Hill Graveyard

Why are we encouraging senators' empty White House hopes?

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How doomed is Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) in her ambition to become the next President of the United States? So doomed that when Slate's Jacob Weisberg sets out to write a contrarian assessment disputing all the anti-Hillary doomsayers, even he has to concede that Hillary's effort is going nowhere. The junior senator from New York turns out to have many appealing qualities (if we define "appealing" as broadly as her husband defined the verb to be). Clinton's a stalwart liberal hawk; she's an aggressive centrist willing to match big-government solutions with big business glad-handing; she can hold up lefty positions on abortion and CAFTA while scolding a hapless nation for its entertainment choices. Nevertheless, Weisberg concludes:

Yet Hillary does face a genuine electability issue, one that has little to do with ideology, woman-hating, or her choice of life partner. Plainly put, it's her personality… [S]he still lacks a key quality that a politician can't achieve through hard work: likability. As hard as she tries, Hillary has little facility for connecting with ordinary folk, for making them feel that she understands, identifies, and is at some level one of them… Democrats lost in 2000 and 2004 with candidates Main Street regarded as elitist and aloof, to a candidate voters related to personally. Hillary isn't as obnoxious as Gore or as off-putting as Kerry. But she's got the same damn problem, and it can't be fixed.

This is not an unusual view. Clinton is in an odd electoral position: widely considered the leading Democratic hope for 2008, and just as widely dismissed as having no hope of winning.

But for Senator Hillary Clinton, the White House trouble isn't the "Hillary" part or the "Clinton" part; it's the "Senator" part. The United States Senate isn't just the world's greatest deliberative body and car wash; it's also one of the most prominent and reliable roads to nowhere in American politics.

If you want to become president, you've got two options: Be the vice president, or be the governor of a state. No U.S. president has been elected from the Senate since John F. Kennedy in 1960, and not one has been elected in a legitimate vote since Warren G. Harding in 1920. Sure, these iron rules of presidential electability are a dime a dozen, and the open 2008 race—in which, for the first time since 1928, neither party's primary will feature an incumbent president or vice president—is an opportune moment to retire another electoral truism. But when voting for the top of the ticket, Americans have demonstrated a fairly clear disdain for Senate veterans.

It's not as clear that voters actually prefer governors; but four out of the last five presidents have come from statehouses, and the appeal is easy to understand. Unlike legislators, who drag around legacies heavy on deal-cutting and sordid compromise, governors can brag on solid executive experience. They can do this even in states that have a constitutionally weak governor's office (as George W. Bush did while running for the White House from his position as governor of Texas) or when their accomplishments for the state are not entirely clear (as Bill Clinton did in 1992, amid considerable debate over whether Arkansas was, in the first President Bush's words, "the lowest of the low" or, in Clinton's reading, America's most improved state). Governors have built-in reasons to put the perceived welfare of the state above party considerations, a habit that Americans, who generally don't see "bipartisan" as the cussword it is, admire. Simply as a function of the amount of legislation that gets voted on, a Senate voting record is at best a two-edged campaign sword, subject to infinite revision and fictionalization. A record as governor is both easier to defend and more suited to aggrandizement. Most importantly, a spot in the executive branch involves managing and responding to a noisy legislature; even in our post-constitutional decadence, with notions about the separation of powers fading from memory, voters put a premium on executive know-how when they're filling an executive position.

Thus, the Democrats, whose field of potential presidential candidates is heavy with senators, have reason to worry. In addition to frontrunner Clinton, the party's 2008 primaries could well be weighed down by Sens. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), and even John Edwards (D-N.C.), tanned, rested and ready after his shellacking in last year's vice-presidential race. Speaking of which, is there enough garlic and holy water in America to keep the presidential hopes of John Kerry (D-Mass.) from rising out of the grave?

That all these folks think they're going to become President of the United States would be funny if it weren't so sad. But the Democrats are not alone in this delusion. Senate Majority leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), with his recent stem cell shift, has become the most prominent GOP senator bucking for higher office, but following him out of the clown car are such sub-luminaries as Sam Brownback (R-Kans.), Chuck Hagel (R-Nebr.), and even star of stage and screen John McCain (R-Ariz.). In fact, a glance at the current crew of presidential hopefuls in both parties reveals a crew heavy on legislators, unelected technocrats, and former political stars in varying stages of reputational decay. In some alternate universe, charisma vacuum Frist is already running against 98-pound weakling Dennis Kucinich, and a grateful nation no longer needs Ambien to get a good night's sleep.

Beyond providing some distraction during the dog days, do these politicians' forlorn hopes do any real damage? Probably not, but they do distract attention from a more interesting story shaping up in the state houses. I am on record with the prediction that New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson will be recognized as the Dems' best bet to get back into the White House. Since then, the man from Santa Fe has been embarrassed in a speeding incident and (more damningly) denounced by one Reason reader as "an aging version of Horatio Sanz." But he has the potential to move the Democrats out of the Northeastern doldrums that doomed them in 2004. (Hillary Clinton, wherever she's actually from, would do little to solve this problem.)

More intriguingly, a presidential run by a southwestern Democrat sets up a potential regional realignment of the two parties. Among Republican governors, the two with the best chances in a presidential race are both from the Northeast—New York's George Pataki and Massachusetts' Mitt Romney. If five years of George W. Bush hasn't dashed your hopes that ascendant Republicans will be truly committed to smaller government, it's dismaying to consider either a Rockefeller Republican or a Massachusetts RINO getting the 2008 nomination. But it might be worth it for the spectacle of the Democrats running a western maverick against a Republican from the land of the bluebloods. Do any of these guys own a "ranch" or an "estate?"

So why the interest in colossal bores like Clinton and Frist? Ultimately, it has little to do with politics, or party ambitions, or even electoral feasibility. It's about the egos of the individuals. In the celebrity bubble of contemporary politics, there's just nobody to laugh at a Bill Frist when he floats his pipe dreams, to say no to a Hillary Clinton when she wastes the party's resources on a vanity project. That's tough luck for them, but good news for those of us who will be around to watch when their grand hopes collapse in gross, humiliating failure.

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