Sens. Clinton, Obama or McCain in '08? Don't hold your breath

December 24, 2006|By Theo Lippman Jr. | Theo Lippman Jr.,Special to The Sun

The two leading Democrats for the 2008 presidential nomination are, according to recent polls, Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois.

This month the latter received a very warm reception in his first visit to New Hampshire, where presidential primaries begin, and he said he thought his new-found popularity showed the nation was "looking for something different - we want something new."

The next day Clinton said she was talking to people about her plans, and said she would decide whether to seek the presidential nomination next month.

I don't believe either of them has much of a chance of being elected president. I'm prejudiced. Not against blacks or women.

Nor am I against Republicans when I say I am equally doubtful about the fate of Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who has been leading in Republican polling, against an ex-mayor and an ex-governor.

Rather, my prejudice is against senators as presidential wannabe's. Voters have almost never picked them for the nation's top office.

I have written two books about senators who sought presidential nominations: Edmund S. Muskie in 1972 and Edward M. Kennedy in 1980. The Democratic voters who turned out for presidential primaries in those years turned thumbs down.

And they are just two of many distinguished and capable senators who have failed to achieve the presidency.

Here's the record:

In 2004, Sen. John F. Kerry became the first sitting Democratic senator to be nominated for president since 1972. He lost to President Bush.

Bush was Texas governor when he won the office in 2000. He defeated McCain in the 2000 primaries.

In 1972, a second senator did get the Democratic nomination. George S. McGovern overcame Muskie, then in the general election he carried one state and the District of Columbia, running against incumbent President Richard M. Nixon.

In 1996 Republicans, who had not nominated a sitting senator since 1964, nominated for the first time a man whom everybody called senator - even though he had at the last minute quit the Senate because his opponents were making headway with attacking him as "Beltway Bob." That was Bob Dole. His years in Washington as a Kansas senator were a mark against him. Even though he was the majority leader. Or maybe because he was majority leader. He still was regarded as a senator when he lost the election to President Clinton, who never had been a senator.

The 1964 election was Sen. Barry Goldwater's debacle. The Arizona Republican carried six states. The coattails of his Democratic opponent, President Lyndon B. Johnson, filled Congress to overflowing.

Before 1960, when John F. Kennedy was elected, only one sitting senator had ever been elected president.

This now becomes a cautionary tale. The first winning senator was Ohio Republican Warren G. Harding in 1920, who died suddenly in 1923, perhaps by being poisoned, perhaps by his wife. And, of course, JFK was assassinated.

Some have said that those two were cursed for having been elected in a year that ended in a zero.

Before them the presidents who were elected in 1940, 1900, 1880, 1860 and 1840 also died in office. The curse did not appear in Ronald Reagan's terms in the office, which he won in 1980. (But he survived an assassin's effort and high-risk cancer.) Nor has the 2000 victor been thus cursed.

Of sitting senators who have sought the nomination unsuccessfully, there have been many. Ronald Reagan, an ex-governor of California, defeated Dole and Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. in the 1980 primaries. Jimmy Carter, an ex-governor of Georgia, defeated Sen. Henry M. Jackson and Sen. Birch Bayh in 1976. Carter also defeated Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in 1980.

Clinton was governor of Arkansas when he defeated Sen. Bob Kerrey in the 1992 primaries.

McCain is one of several Republican senators thinking about 2008. They'll have to overcome ex-Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts.

There have been ex-senators aplenty in the White House. Thirteen in all. Nine of them were sitting or had been vice presidents. One (James Monroe) was elected president 23 years after he gave up Senate life. Leaving is known as getting a life.

I would say that if this history is a guide, then Senators Clinton and Obama - and John Kerry, Joe Biden , Evan Bayh, not to mention John McCain and maybe one or two other ambitious Republican senators - will not become president.

I must say I know a way a senator could get elected. Suppose the 2008 general election is between McCain and Clinton, the present front-runners. A senator would definitely win.

Al Gore said the day before Obama went to New Hampshire that he was not going to run for the presidency in 2008, eight years after he lost the presidential recounts, but things can change. Richard Nixon once said with emphasis that he would never run for any office. He had been a senator, he had been vice president, he had lost the presidency by a hair, but eight years after the loss of the 1960 presidential race he was elected president.

Theo Lippman Jr. is a retired editorial writer for The Sun.

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