Monday, July 28, 2008

A niggling itch now scratched

The answer's in the images above;
but here's Malcolm's
mid-Atlantic reasoning:
  • 2000: Governor of Texas;
  • 1992: Governor of Arkansas;
  • 1988: incumbent Vice-President;
  • 1980: former Governor of California;
  • 1976: Governor of Georgia;
  • 1974: incumbent (unelected) Vice-President; formerly House Minority Leader;
  • 1968: former Vice-President;
  • 1963: incumbent Vice-President;
  • 1960 (at last!): Senator.
Malcolm was exercised trying to remember how often a sitting Senator had ascended directly to the Presidency. This, of course, was provoked by the presumption that the 44th President will do so. This year, with Obama, McCain and Hillary in the hunt, it seemed a natural progression.

In the above recital, he remembered Kennedy's progress in 1960. When else? Without reference sources at 38,000 feet, he was reduced to memory.

Before Kennedy, he could discount Eisenhower (Army), Truman (incumbent Veep), Hoover (Cabinet member), and Coolidge (another incumbent Veep). He suspected that Harding had been in the Senate: was that one of Kennedy's predecessors?

Back home, a few seconds produced the surprise: in the whole of the Presidential sucession only two Senators had gone directly to the White House: Harding in 1920 and JFK in 1960.

Had he realised it, part of the answer was in his carry-on bag, a piece by Patrick Healy in the still-unread "Week in Review" section of Sunday's New York Times (which identifies JFK but not Harding):
John McCain or Barack Obama would be only the third president in history to go directly from the Senate to the White House. And, perhaps not coincidentally, both men face an electorate that seems more open to Senate-style compromise and negotiation, defying conventional wisdom in modern politics.
The second sentence there is more interesting than Malcolm's geeky interest in Presidential trivia.

Healy argues that the Senatorial experience is significant in two ways.

First, it was what made LBJ so successful (far more so than JFK):
Lyndon Baines Johnson understood power on the atomic level. He knew what bills would fly in Congress, how to build coalitions, which lawmakers were undecided. He had an insider’s knowledge of their egos and frailties. He appreciated that he couldn’t succeed with just Martin Luther King Jr. on his team; he needed Everett M. Dirksen, the Senate’s Republican leader, too. His touch could be light or very firm, as the moment required.

Hence: Medicare and Medicaid, the Civil Rights Acts, the war on poverty and the war in Vietnam — one of the most activist and controversial agendas ever enacted by a president (and in just five years, at that).

Johnson’s gifts for leadership had nothing to do with being John F. Kennedy’s vice president; he honed his skills, and built a useful list of chits, as majority leader of the Senate from 1955 to 1960. He proved the upsides of senatorial savvy in the Oval Office — an uncommon display, given the tendency of voters to favor governors, vice presidents and generals as presidential candidates with executive experience.
Second, that Obama or McCain represents a appropriate gut-reaction to the visceral politics Bush years:
The alienation of allies; the go-it-alone strategy in Iraq; and the lack of immigration reform and a new energy policy; the rise in gas prices and health care costs have left many Americans in a dyspeptic mood. And with all the problems in the world, polls show there is a desire for a candidate with more foreign policy experience than a typical governor has.

Given the costs of a with-us-or-against-us presidency that achieved relatively little on Capitol Hill, maybe voters think a split-the-difference senator isn’t such a bad idea. In a New York Times/CBS poll in February, 72 percent of Republican primary voters said they wanted a Republican president to compromise with Democrats to “get more things done,” while 14 percent wanted a president to stick to the party’s positions. Democratic primary voters lined up in a similar way behind a Democratic president.
So: "foreign policy experience" and compromise politics. Hmmm ...

Back in February (Malcolm now sees), Brian Wingfield, Washington Bureau chief for Forbes Magazine, was ahead of the curve, anticipating a historical first:
It's the first time two sitting senators will run against each other as their party's nominee for president.
Being Forbes, of course, the tone has to be wry-going-on-downright-sceptical:
Senators are high-profile politicians with Washington smarts. So why is it so tough for them to get elected president? For those very reasons.

With six-year terms, senators have long histories of roll-call votes. They often appear to flip-flop on issues, or will vote against a slightly different version of a bill -- remember John Kerry's claim about voting for war funding before he voted against it? Other times, a senator will vote for a bill simply because there is an amendment attached that would be favorable to his or her constituents.

This amounts to a field day for opposition research teams: Few things are easier to twist in a 30-second campaign spot than a Senate voting record.

There's also the problem of being a Washington insider. If voters are disillusioned with the government, a senator is easily seen as part of the problem. Witness the 1976 campaign of Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, who ran on the premise of being a Beltway outsider.

Senators can be considered stuffy, and they're often too far removed from the political lay of the land. And they're legislators (read: compromisers) -- not executives, a role required of the president. The skills that make them successful in the Senate chamber do not necessarily serve them well on the campaign trail.
At which point, it begins to look as if the Times's Healy owes Wingfield a drink or two, or great minds are thinking alike in curious sequence.

Absit omen

There is a foot-note to the Wingfield article: both Harding and JFK died prematurely in office. Furthermore, Garfield was elected President in 1880 (the only President elected directly from the House). He was simultaneously elected as Senator for Ohio, so never formally sat in the Senate. Garfield was shot just four months into his Presidency: incompetent doctors induced blood-poisoning, from which he died eighty days later. Sphere: Related Content

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