Cursed with the Senate gene

Hillary Clinton defends her murky position on Iraq by saying she is working to pass a broad-based Senate resolution criticizing the president’s troop build-up. “I’m still in the arena,” she explains, “I’m still fighting to get those 60 votes.”

There, in a nutshell, is a key reason why only two sitting senators have been elected president in our entire history. Legislative leadership is an exercise in coalition-building. Blurring edges and making concessions is the only way to attract 51 votes (or 60 to break a filibuster). So individual lawmakers often support positions that don’t clearly and exactly express their own personal views.

Clinton talks about being “cursed with the responsibility gene,” but her bigger problem is the Senate gene. Just ask her fellow sufferer, John Kerry, how damaging that genetic handicap can be. His suicidal statement – that he actually voted against the Iraq war before he voted for it – was pure Senate speak. Senators often vote on both sides of an issue, depending on the amendments offered and the legislative package that eventually emerges.

But executive leadership is very different from legislative leadership. The best executives craft visions not coalitions, they paint in bright strokes, not pallid pastels. Almost every successful presidential candidate has already held an executive job – governor, general, vice-president (or in Herbert Hoover’s case, cabinet secretary). They have the habit of command not compromise.

The most memorable presidents say “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” They don’t say, “I’m still fighting to get those 60 votes” to pass a non-binding resolution expressing disapproval of the wall.

But yes, the “responsibility gene” also plagues Hillary. She’s a good senator who takes her job seriously. As she correctly points out, “It’s very easy to go around saying, ‘end the war now.’” It’s much harder to calibrate the effects of withdrawal and clean up the consequences. And it’s much harder to sell that position to the dedicated antiwar activists who come to her rallies and ask thorny questions.

Hillary has a third curse to worry about – the Washington gene. She can talk all she wants about being a daughter of “middle America,” but after 15 years on the national stage she is, in the public mind, a creature of the capital. So was Al Gore, who grew up in the Fairfax Hotel in the heart of Washington and attended the elite St. Albans School a few blocks away.

His argument that he was really a man of the soil, because he worked summers on a family farm in Tennessee, fell totally flat. Americans like presidents rooted in Plains and Crawford and Hope, not Georgetown and K Street and Capitol Hill.

Clinton’s main rival, Barack Obama, has been a senator for only two years and is trying to turn his lack of Washington experience into an asset. For one thing, he doesn’t have to explain his vote on the Iraq war because he never cast one, he was still back in the Illinois legislature.

In fact he’s running against Washington, even against the Senate. He announced his candidacy on the grounds of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., a gesture that emphasizes his links to the state and its famous son, Abraham Lincoln – not the U.S. Capitol. His speeches and interviews are filled with denunciations of the “insider’s game” played by his new colleagues in Congress, and he pointedly reminds folks that the Iraq debacle was managed by two of the most experienced hands in town, Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.

A prime Republican candidate, Rudy Giuliani, is also running against the Senate (a body he briefly sought to join before dropping his race against Hillary) and stressing his executive experience as mayor of New York. “Having had a job where I didn’t have any choice but to make a decision,” he told a campaign crowd in California, “prepares you as best you can be prepared to be the president of the United States.”

The unstated but unmistakable message: Senators don’t make decisions, they make speeches. And while Giuliani’s home borough of Brooklyn is not exactly middle America, it’s a better political base than the Fairfax Hotel.

Since John F. Kennedy’s victory in 1960, dozens of sitting lawmakers have run for president and only one, John Kerry, even came close. Of course if two senators run against each other – Clinton v. McCain, for example – one has to win. But Hillary’s first forays as a candidate show why the Senate gene is so debilitating on the campaign trail.

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 2007, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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