Climbing the hill to White House? Look out, Senator Dole: The presumptive Republican nominee is likely to find out that in presidential politics, being a senator is more of a liability than an asset.

March 31, 1996|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

"THERE'S NEVER been a president named Bob," Sen. Bob Dole likes to say on the campaign trail, suggesting, jestingly, that it's his turn.

But it's not his "Bob" (or "Robert," as Speaker Newt Gingrich called him last week) that's his biggest liability. The lack of President Bobs is just a quirk. Nobody votes on a first name basis. Bob Dole's liability is his title: senator.

Americans seldom elect sitting senators president. More sitting senators have been indicted and convicted of felonies than have been elected president. The latter has happened only twice in electoral history. The first one died in his first term -- perhaps poisoned. The second one was assassinated.

Now there have been 13 ex-senators elected president. But all of them had left the Senate, gotten a real job, before they were elected president. James Monroe had been out of the Senate for 23 years when he won the White House. John Quincy Adams, 17. Richard Nixon, 16.

The two senator-presidents were Warren Harding, who died suddenly and mysteriously after coming down with a case of ptomaine poisoning in his third year in the presidency, and John F. Kennedy, who was murdered in his third presidential year.

Nor have senators done well when they sought the nomination. Since the preferential primaries began to play a major role in the nominating process, only two senators have been nominated by their parties for president. It's not for lack of trying. In 1992 Gov. Bill Clinton defeated Sens. Bob Kerrey and Tom Harkin for the Democratic nomination. In 1988 Vice President George Bush defeated Senator Dole for the Republican nomination. And Gov. Michael S. Dukakis became the Democratic nominee that year despite efforts to beat him by four senators: Al Gore, Paul Simon, Gary Hart and Joe Biden. In 1984 former Vice President Walter F. Mondale defeated Democratic Senators Hart, John Glenn, Alan Cranston and Ernest Hollings. In 1980, Senator Dole and Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. finished behind Ronald Reagan and two other non-senators. In 1976 ex-Gov. Jimmy Carter and three other non-senators out ran three sitting senators.

Two senators have been were nominated by their parties since Jack Kennedy. They lost in the general elections by the two biggest margins in the post-war period. Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater got only 38.5 percent of the popular vote in 1964, and in 1972 Democratic Sen. George McGovern got only 37.5 percent.

Why are senators so poor at running for president? Probably because, as Senator Dole also likes to say on the stump, "I have a record." Senators have to vote.

Bob Dole is especially vulnerable (if a voting record is the explanation). He has been a senator longer than any of the ex-senators who were elected president. He has been voting (and speaking) as a senator since 1969. His 26 years in the Senate is more than the Senate careers of the two most veteran ex-senator presidents combined: Lyndon Johnson served 12 years and Harry Truman, 10. The average Senate career of presidents is 6 years.

So if Sen. Bob Dole, who now seems certain of being nominated this year, is also elected, he will hae overcome history in a dramatic way. If he loses to President Clinton, he will, presumably, go back to being Senate Majority Leader a job held by two other Bobs in the past, Democrat Bob Byrd and Republican Bob Taft.

Theo Lippman Jr. is a former editorial writer and columnist for The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/31/96

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