Dateline 22 August 2007
The separation of powers is right at the heart of the US Constitution. It was developed for several reasons. One is the basic one of checks and balances with which everyone is familiar, but there is another. Talent is not generalizable. Just because someone is good at one thing it does not mean they would be good at a different job.
The American electorate understands this instinctively. In the whole of US history just three serving members of Congress – House and Senate combined – have been elected to the Presidency. Presidents are much more likely to be drawn from the ranks of state governors. The only Washington job from which someone has a better than even chance of being elected President is . . . President. It is more often than not that Presidents get re-elected, but, while Vice-Presidents and Senators are good at becoming candidates, they are bad at winning elections.
The barrier a DC career poses to election as President is longstanding and wide in its scope. Speakers of the House are prominent leaders and powerful figures in their own right. Many have pursued the Presidency. Exactly one has succeeded – James Polk. And he returned to Tennessee after being Speaker and ran for the Presidency as a state governor.
It is 80 years since a serving member of the cabinet (Herbert Hoover) was elected President. And since then only one person (Bush the Elder) with any cabinet experience has been elected to the job. Serving in the cabinet seems to count against someone’s chances. Take John Connally, for instance. He was governor of Texas, and governing a major state would seem, self-evidently, to qualify someone for the Presidency. He rounded off that experience by becoming Treasury Secretary. Surely this would put the seal on his already powerful qualifications? As it turned out, no. He flopped badly in the 1980 primaries, losing to Ronald Reagan, but also trailing George Bush, Howard Baker and John Anderson.
A few times, America has elected military heroes to the Presidency. But most of these have gained prominence in conflicts which changed, at least, America and often the world. The most prominent were the generals who led American troops in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War II.
This makes sense. Governors and generals share one thing: they have to manage large numbers of people for diverse purposes. But generals are rarely prominent enough, or sufficiently associated with a broad policy agenda, for people to consider them viable candidates.
Most Senators have never run anything larger than their Senate office. It is a very big jump from there to running the federal government. The Mayor of Plattsburgh has more executive experience.
The Senate has never been a good place to look for leadership, but, if anything it is getting worse. Congress sits around waiting for the President to propose ideas. The three leading candidates for the Democratic nomination are all current or former Senators. They all have plans for healthcare. But the only way a President can implement such a plan is to send it to Congress. If their ideas are so great they can propose them in Congress without becoming President. In 2004 the situation was even more ridiculous. John Kerry had been a Senator for 20 years. If he knows how to solve healthcare he can propose legislation to do it.
Why do parties keep proposing Senators for the Presidency? It’s inexplicable.
Quentin Langley is editor of http://www.quentinlangley.net an academic at the University of Cardiff and is a columnist with Campaigns & Elections. This article was first published in the Common Sense series for Lake Champlain Weekly.