- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 5, 2008


For all the talk of “change” and Beltway-bashing in this campaign, the next president could well come from the ultimate Washington insider club: the U.S. Senate.

That itself would be something of a change.

Only twice before have voters sent a sitting senator from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other: Massachusetts Democrat John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Ohio Republican Warren G. Harding 80 years earlier. Never have two sitting senators competed for the presidency as the Democratic and Republican nominees, but that will happen if Sen. John McCain of Arizona can ride his growing lead into the Republican nomination.

Although none among Mr. McCain, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton or Sen. Barack Obama would need to spend time getting to know Washington, that is no guarantee of peaceful White House relations with Congress or an easy transition.

An ex-senator would take hard-won alliances and friendships to the White House, said Princeton historian Julian E. Zelizer, but would do the same for built-up animosities. Mr. McCain and Mrs. Clinton, in particular, should expect no honeymoon.

“The personal back-and-forth would start right away,” Mr. Zelizer said. “I think senators would be very comfortable testing these people in the White House.”

Voters traditionally pick presidents who were governors, executives adept at budgeting and comfortable issuing commands. This year, the only remaining presidential candidates who have held that job are Republicans Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas. They have based much of their appeal on not being Washington insiders but have fallen behind Mr. McCain for the Republican nomination.

While governors can foster an image of action, legislators are most often seen deliberating. The Senate runs by consent more than rules, and that requires the regular practice of rituals that include complex deal-making, maintenance of intimate relationships and procedural gymnastics.

Despite their Capitol Hill experience, Presidents Kennedy and Harding had difficulty establishing authority over their ex-colleagues. Mr. Kennedy, in particular, was young and faced a Congress full of lawmakers who scored better in their own districts than he did in the 1960 election, Senate associate historian Don Ritchie said.

“The old bulls, the people who chaired the committees, didn’t necessarily think they owed Kennedy anything,” Mr. Ritchie said. But over two years leading up to the midterm elections, Mr. Kennedy “showed his toughness” — particularly in the Cuban Missile Crisis — that won Democrats a larger majority in Congress.

“Kennedy sort of established the coattails in 1962 that he didn’t have in ‘60,” Mr. Ritchie said.

Either of the two Democrats could be in for a period of political hazing as president, especially if their former Senate colleagues suspect they used the chamber merely as a step to the White House, analysts said. Mrs. Clinton is in her second term, Mr. Obama in his first.

Mr. McCain, meanwhile, has a carefully maintained image of being a maverick.

Asked yesterday whether he would follow the example of Bob Dole, who left the Senate as majority leader when he won the Republican presidential nomination, Mr. McCain said, “Honestly, I have not thought about it,” though he said he wasn’t even sure it was the right move for Mr. Dole.

“Whether it was right or wrong, I’ll leave to the historians. But he said he couldn’t do his job as Republican leader and run for president effectively at the same time,” Mr. McCain said.

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