For many elections, we have seen pundits recite the truism that Senators don’t fair well in presidential races. You have to go back to John Kennedy to find the last successful Senator to run for President. But the streak will be broken this time, right? Well, not really if Barack Obama prevails. Obama hardly carved a career in the Senate and began his run just a few years after arriving in that august body. He was barely touched by the Senate, or it by him. John McCain however spent his mature political life and most of his adult life there. And perhaps that is part of the problem.
What is it about the Senate that hampers presidential candidates? In some cases, it is the fondness for Senate-ese and the delight in hearing one’s own voice. In other cases it is the burden of explaining all those votes, some of which inevitably conflict with others. In McCain’s case it may account for the inability or unwillingness to drive a big picture agenda and to go for the jugular. Both have handicapped his effort and utterly frustrated his supporters.
McCain presents a biography and a set of value-laden phrases (e.g. “putting country first”) but not an all-encompassing agenda or vision for what he wants to do and where he wants to take the country. Many of the items he stresses are process-oriented — “bipartisanship.” But that’s not a goal, it’s a means to an end. What does all that bipartisanship going to get us? We don’t know.
As for his political instincts, perhaps McCain has absorbed the genial tone of the Senate and the lesson that one doesn’t burn bridges with opponents whose help you may someday need. In the context of a presidential run, McCain and his campaign have become a maddening bundle of contradictions. Sarah Palin can raise Reverend Wright, but McCain can’t. Bill Ayers and ACORN are fair game, but not in a debate. What rules is he playing by? No one can quite tell. More importantly, what is the public supposed to make of those issues when presented with such a tentative and scattershot approach? Voters soon conclude these issues must not matter all that much.
So aside from not running when your party is presiding over an economic debacle, perhaps the lesson for Republicans is this: if you select a nominee from the Senate make sure he doesn’t have the temperament and mindset of a Senator.