The Trouble With Being a Senator Is Voting

THEO LIPPMAN JR

January 27, 1991|By THEO LIPPMAN JR. | THEO LIPPMAN JR.,Theo Lippman Jr. is an editorial writer and columnist for The Sun.

CLAYTON YEUTTER, the brand new chairman of the Republican National Committee, said last week that "90 percent" of the Democratic senators who had voted "no" on authorizing the use of force in the Persian Gulf January 12 "now wish they had cast their votes the other way. They picked the wrong side. If the conflict goes well, that will work against them." He made it clear that he meant politically.

That is probably true of senators with presidential ambitions. But senators who voted "yes" on using force will probably be hurt politically, too, especially those who run for president in 1992. But this is a historical reality, not one special to this issue and this time.

U.S. senators are almost never elected president, and one reason is that they have to vote on high visibility issues that arouse strong support and opposition among voters.

A Senate vote is carved in granite, so to speak. No senator can deny what his position was on the war.

A year from now when the primary campaigning is under way, voters won't have to guess where Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia ("no") or Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas ("no") or Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee ("yes") stood. Or figure out what they mean when they say what their foreign policy ideas are. A vote on a joint resolution like this is not equivocal.

It was a time to stand and be counted. (Literally, in this case. Unlike almost all roll calls in the Senate, the senators stood up to vote on the use-of-force resolutions.)

You know where the senators stood, but how about Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York? He is considered the leading Democratic presidential prospect by many political writers. He has stated his views on the Persian Gulf, sort of, but he hasn't voted. His opponents in 1992 won't be able to pin him down the way he may pin them down. I'll come back to Governor Cuomo in a moment.

No matter how the situation in the gulf turns out, all the senators will probably suffer. The voters who would have preferred a "yes" vote will hold it against those senators who voted "no" and vice versa. The senators may even be blamed for tragic developments.

Now this is not new. Senators inevitably put themselves out on limbs on important issues because they have to take unequivocal stands -- "yea" and "yes" and sometimes "aye" or "no" (officially, a roll call is the recording of the "yeas and nays," but "nobody says 'nay' anymore," according to Senate Legislative Clerk Bill Farmer).

Many of these votes have a strong ideological context, further adding to the political jeopardy senators face when they have to go on the record.

Voting on amendments to legislation sometimes lets them have it both ways. They vote to weaken a bill, to appeal to voters who oppose it, then vote to pass the final version, to appeal to voters who favor it. But this is a risky and usually unsuccessful tightrope walk when the issues are highly visible and public opinion is passionate.

So it should be no surprise that senators do so poorly when they run for president.

It was once thought that senators would be leading players in presidential politics. After America became a true international power in World War I, foreign policy experience was thought by many to have become an asset in a presidential candidate. Senators engage in foreign policy, governors don't.

In 1920, Republicans nominated Sen. Warren Harding of Ohio for the presidency. He was the first sitting senator nominated by either party since before the Civil War. Though he won big, he was also the last senator to win the nomination for 40 years.

Only a few senators seriously sought the nomination in those four decades. The most noted was Ohio Republican Robert A. Taft. He was known as "Mr. Republican," but he lost the 1940 nomination to businessman Wendell Willkie and the 1952 nomination to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

In 1952 and 1956, Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee sought the Democratic presidential nomination. He lost both times to Adlai Stevenson, who was governor of Illinois in 1952 and a private lawyer and writer in 1956.

In 1960, the Democrats nominated a sitting U.S. senator as their presidential candidate for the first time since Sen. Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois in 1860 -- exactly a century before.

The nominee was Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, and it has to be said that he won the nomination in large part because he was the worst senator in the race. He defeated Sen. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota in the primaries and Sen. Lyndon Johnson of Texas at the convention.

Senator Kennedy knew better than to stay in Washington and vote. He voted on only 35 percent of the 207 recorded votes in 1960. Senator Humphrey voted on 49 percent. Senator Johnson, the majority leader, voted on 95 percent.

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