Before Barack Obama, John F. Kennedy was the last U.S. senator to take a direct route down Pennsylvania Avenue from Capitol Hill to the White House. And before Obama, no president since Richard Nixon had served in the Senate.
And yet, with the odds stacked against them, the four 2016 presidential candidates officially declared so far are all senators — or, in Hillary Clinton’s case, a former senator.
In the past 25 or so years, Americans shifted from wanting a Washington insider to a Washington outsider in the Oval Office. In 1987, 66 percent said a U.S. senator was better prepared than a state governor to be president, with 22 percent preferring a governor, according to the Pew Research Center. In 2014, people were split, with 44 percent favoring a senator for the White House and 44 percent preferring a governor, an indication of how Congress has lost favor with Americans.
Declaring yourself anti-Washington — popular these days — is a hard sell when you’ve chosen to work there. And if you’re a sitting senator, like Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, your voting record, attendance and compliance with congressional ethics rules are all available for scrutiny. The Republican candidates have already taken hits on all three.
And in the coming weeks and months there will be more votes cast, adding to the treasure trove that reporters and opponents mine to highlight inconsistencies or unpopular positions. You have to distance yourself from the dysfunction but still be an engaged public servant.
We asked Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, if he had advice for his three colleagues.
“Remember I’m the loser, all right?” he said in a brief chat off the Senate floor Monday night.
But to get to the nomination — which he did on a second try — you’ve got to spend a great deal of time letting people “touch you,” particularly in New Hampshire, he said, which of course requires being there for extended periods. And he acknowledged it’s hard to balance bouncing between the Senate and the presidential campaign trail.
“You spend a hell of a lot of time flying back and forth,” he said. “But if you win, your constituents are happy. If you lose, you have something to answer for.”
(In 2008, our colleague Paul Kane wrote several stories about all the votes McCain missed because he was running for president.)
When Clinton ran the first time, she was juggling her full-time Senate job with the campaign. This time she may benefit from focusing all her energy on running for president, but modern history is also not on her side. Clinton would not only join the small club of 20th-century senators-turned-presidents, but, as Pew noted Monday, she would be the first former Cabinet secretary to even be a party’s nominee — let alone win the White House — since Herbert Hoover in 1928.