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« Elsewhere | Main | Popular Culture Can Be Strange »

February 10, 2008

Senators as Presidents: Oh Dear!

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Back in the late 60s and early 70s, political conventional wisdom had it that the route to the presidency was through the Senate. In recent years, that road is supposed to go through a governor's mansion. In the first case, it was assumed that foreign policy was the most important presidential task, and that was the one thing governors didn't get to deal with. Nowadays, the theory is that management is the key task; governors have to administrate, assemble budgets, deal with legislatures, and so forth. Senators only have relatively small staffs to run (and have an administrator to handle that task, in any case).

Guess what? Barring an Act of God, the next president will be a former senator.

What does that portend? I dunno. Nor am I sure that history is a great guide. Nevertheless, why not take a stab at it. Here are the presidents, since 100 years ago today, listed by their highest elected office, not counting Vice President -- according to John Nance Garner "Not worth a bucket of warm sh*t."

  • Senators
  • Harding
  • Truman
  • Nixon
  • Kennedy
  • Johhnson

  • Governors
  • T. Roosevelt
  • Wilson
  • Coolidge
  • F.D. Roosevelt
  • Carter
  • Reagan
  • Clinton
  • G.W. Bush

  • Congressmen
  • Ford
  • G.H.W. Bush

  • No significant elective office
  • Taft
  • Hoover
  • Eisenhower

And who were the most consequential and/or most effective presidents from this list? Every so often surveys of historians are taken, and the results are skewed according to whether the panel has a left or right bias. Let's forget about the presidents who served since Reagan to avoid injecting any more partisan bias than necessary. So drop Clinton and the two Bushes.

Most surveys that I recall place the two Roosevelts at or near the top. Reagan seems to on his way there. Truman, highly unpopular when he left office, is now generally thought of as being one of the better ones. Eisenhower also is looking stronger than originally. Kennedy is starting to slip, and may drop further once historians who loved him pass on to the Great Library Stacks in the Sky. Among righties, Coolidge seems pretty good. And lefties are still high on Wilson.

So if those surveys are meaningful, governors indeed tend to do better than senators. What do you think?



posted by Donald at February 10, 2008


Among congressmen you have to add A. Lincoln, which evens the categories out a little more. Top-o-my-head judgment: Still, in some Wertfrei sense of consequential/effective, I have to admit that governors look best. Which makes sense: they are after all already Presidents, in effect, though of smaller countries.

Posted by: Lester Hunt on February 10, 2008 10:39 PM

One should also note that several of those Presidents ascended through the Vice Presidency. I noticed recently that of 16 Democrat nominee for VP since 1944, 12 were sitting Senators, and 2 were ex-Senators and sitting VPs. Only Ferraro in 1984 and Shriver in 1972 were not (and Shriver was a substitute for a Senator). Two Senator-VPs became President. The Democrats have had five all-Senate tickets.

Republicans are less Senatophilic: of 11 VP nominee since 1964, only 3 were Senators or ex-Senators. There has been only one GOP all-Senate ticket.

I note also that in 1960, 1968, 1972, and it seems likely in 2008, both nominees were Senators or ex-Senators. Finally, I note that since 1944 there have been ten Governor/Senator tickets, but only two Senator/Governor tickets.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on February 11, 2008 4:57 AM

Note that all of the legislators listed except Harding were also vice-presidents.

Posted by: Blair on February 11, 2008 6:36 AM

About the only sensible conclusion one can draw is that governors tend to do better at getting elected President than do senators.

Anything else is statistical hooey.

Posted by: Nigel on February 11, 2008 8:28 AM

One monumental character flaw that any legislator needs to overcome to make it as an effective executive is the pathological aversion to taking any blame. A legislator has it very easy: take credit for what’s good at the moment and deny any culpability for things that go wrong or things that the public doesn’t like at the moment. This is even true if you sponsored a bill to, say, diminish the peoples First Amendment rights, abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances…. And when he did it (McCain-Feingold) his out was that the Supreme Court would never let anything fly that was unconstitutional.

So much for responsible government.

Posted by: Doug on February 11, 2008 9:55 AM

Although the Veep may only have the power of a bucket of warm spit, it is nonetheless the post with the highest success rate at being elected president, except one: President. So I don't see why you'd ignore that. Certainly the experience one gets from Veeping can vary a lot, but then so can the experience of being governor or being a congressman.

As for surveys of presidents, well, the historians have a huge statist bias. They love war, and they love socialism. Peace and prosperity are boring. So, I'd be inclined to take any list generated by any large group of historians, and reverse it, to find the best presidents.

So, among those you listed, the ones I know least about were probably the best. Coolidge, Harding, Taft, Hoover. I do know enough about Ike to consider him pretty good.

Hmph... try to be original... I just went looking for some lists and found a page in wikipedia about this, including a libertarian critique rather akin to mine.

Posted by: Leonard on February 11, 2008 12:17 PM

With the exception of Truman (a product of a political machine himself) all of the Presidents who were former Senators - Harding, Truman, Nixon, Kennedy, Johhnson - were personally and/or politically corrupt to one extent or another.

Harding and Nixon's administrations were famously filled with corruption, Johnson's political background was rife with charges of voter fraud charges and opportunism and Kennedy's background was well known as well as the fact that his Presidency was conducted under the haze of drugs that were needed to cover-up for a serious disease that he did not disclouse to the public. Oh, and he had the sexual morals of an alley cat.

Posted by: pathobby on February 11, 2008 2:48 PM

I like "less is more" government myself generally, so tend to root (to the extent I can be bothered to root for anything) for do-nothing types, as well as traffic-jam situations where the President and the Congress can't agree on anything. My general rule: 9 out of 10 times, nothing really needs to be done. Granted that that 10th time can be a bitch. But batting .900 suits me well enough. Is there a general rule about this? Do Presidents who were govs tend to be more dynamic and accomplishment-oriented (boo, hiss) than Presidents who were Senators? Me, I want a Pres who spends his four years getting massages and taking his dogs for walks. The absence-of-enormous-mistakes would make for a nice change from the usual.

Posted by: MIchael Blowhard on February 11, 2008 6:52 PM

I submit all candidates to the Warren G. Harding Test. Harding was a handsome man, with a clean jawline and a distinguished look. And also one of our weakest presidents, with a corrupt administration. Two candidates, Romney and Edwards, had the Warren Harding Look, so I knew who I would not vote for. Give me someone who looks like Bogart, and I'm happy.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on February 11, 2008 8:28 PM

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