Five rules for presidential politics

It didn’t take long. Within hours after this year’s voting had ended, at least four presidential aspirants – Republicans John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Duncan Hunter, and Democrat Tom Vilsack – took steps to run in 2008.

And just as quickly, the handicappers started rating the candidates – Obama’s up, Kerry’s down, Allen’s dead. We’ve decided to avoid that game (for now) and offer five rules for evaluating the vast field of White House wannabes that are already bidding for attention and money.

HISTORY MATTERS. Only two presidents – Warren Harding and John Kennedy – were sitting senators on the day they were elected. Since Kennedy’s victory in 1960, at least 40 lawmakers have tried and failed to win the White House, and this is not an accident. Americans like candidates with roots outside of Washington. Four of the last five presidents have been governors, a sure sign that it’s easier to run from Plains, Ga. (Carter) or even Beverly Hills (Reagan) than from Capitol Hill.

Long-standing lawmakers cast a lot of votes that are hard to ignore or defend. And they cannot control their own schedule or agenda. Congressional business often pulls them back to Washington from the campaign trail to consider issues they’d rather not talk about.

But their biggest liability is the profound difference between executive and legislative leadership. Good legislators are constantly compromising, altering their positions to fashion a working majority. Effective executives do exactly the opposite. They sharpen edges instead of blurring them, they paint in bright colors not pallid ones. Read the biographies of American presidents and two words leap out: governor and general. What they have in common is the habit of command.

CAMPAIGNS MATTER. No candidate, no matter how experienced, realizes how intense the scrutiny becomes during a presidential campaign. And in the age of You Tube, when one false step gets repeated endlessly on the Internet, the premium on self-discipline is greater than ever.

Sen. George Allen will forever regret using the word “macaca” to describe a dark-skinned worker for campaign rival Jim Webb. But that incident joins a long list of famous self-inflicted wounds: George Romney complaining that he was ‘brainwashed” about Vietnam; Michael Dukakis donning an oversized tank helmet; Howard Dean screaming; Al Gore sighing.

STORIES MATTER. Modern presidents star in a long-running reality show, and candidates need a powerful narrative to connect them to voters on an emotional level. Bill Clinton was “The Boy From Hope,” raised by a widowed mother to live the American Dream. George Bush the Younger was an alcoholic who found God and redemption through the love of a good woman. Ronald Reagan only played The Gipper, a dying football star, in the movies – but hey, that was close enough.

Even a great story doesn’t guarantee success, however. On paper John Glenn was the perfect hero, but he turned out to be a lousy presidential candidate. So did two highly successful professional athletes – Jack Kemp and Bill Bradley. Former POW John McCain has the best story of all, but he lost in 2000.

LOCATION MATTERS. The last northerner to win the White House was Jack Kennedy 46 years ago. Since then the center of political gravity has shifted to the south and the west. Of the last seven presidents, three have come from Texas (Johnson, both Bushes), two from California (Nixon, Reagan) and two from the South (Carter, Clinton). Six Frost Belters have run in that period – Humphrey, McGovern, Ford, Mondale, Dukakis and Kerry – and every one lost.

IDEOLOGY MATTERS. American politics is played between the 40-yard lines. Yes, Reagan ran to the right but his affable personality enabled him to reach well beyond his ideological base. Bush the Younger ran as a “compassionate conservative” but didn’t govern like one, and as a result, independents favored Democrats this year by a huge margin, 57 to 39. Fifteen percent of the Bush voters two years ago deserted the Republicans this time. However, only about one in five Americans call themselves liberals – in case Democrats mistakenly think the country is swinging leftward.

So who fits all of these rules? What about Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, a Democrat who won re-election by 17 points in a deeply red Midwestern state? A gun-owning, budget-balancing mother of two sons who grew up in Ohio (where her dad, John Gilligan, was a Democratic governor), she moved to Kansas for grad school and married into an old Republican family (her late father-in-law succeeded Bob Dole in Congress and served 12 years). You heard it here first.

Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at

Copyright 2006, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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