Elizabeth Warren “is facing tough questions about fundraising and electability,” or so says The Associated Press. She is languishing in fifth place in a spate of polls of Democratic primary voters; Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke are dominating the money race; and her detailed and thoughtful position papers on health care, monopolies and tax policy threaten to define her as the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy Winner of 2020—the candidate who wins a prize from policy wonks and civic-minded pundits, but who never wins the nomination.
There’s no single answer for Warren’s slow start. You could blame the self-inflicted wound of the DNA test and the media’s fascination with the Bright Shiny Object of Betomania. Perhaps it’s because she’s a woman in an era in which misogyny remains all too rife. Maybe, after years in the spotlight, she feels too much like yesterday’s news. But there might be a more difficult hurdle for her to overcome: Warren may be too much of a senator.
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But wait, you say: The last Democrat to occupy the Oval Office was a senator!
Maybe that’s why, inspired by Barack Obama’s example, a half-dozen senators have already declared their 2020 candidacy, and Colorado’s Michael Bennet might make it seven. But Obama was a historical outlier, and not just because he was the first African-American president. Before him, only two sitting senators—Warren Harding and John F. Kennedy—had been elected president.
Perhaps Obama’s two-term presidency lifted the senatorial curse, and the ghosts of the losing campaigns run by Barry Goldwater, Bob Dole, John Kerry, John McCain and others have now been purged from the Senate. But with distrust of government at record levels, the optimism of the Senatorial Six seems unwarranted.
The high-water mark for the Senate as a presidential springboard—at least for a major-party nomination—came during the Cold War when “senatorial” issues such as foreign policy were front and center. During the four elections held from 1960 to 1972, the nominees of both parties had Senate backgrounds. By 1976, after a disastrous war and a major constitutional scandal, former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter could claim it as an advantage that he’d never served in Congress. In the quarter-century from Carter to George W. Bush, every president except H.W. Bush came from outside Washington.
As for Obama, he’s best thought of as a SINO—Senator in Name Only. He began (unofficially) running for the highest office in the land back when he was a lowly state legislator from Illinois. If there is ever a study about his Senate career, spare Robert Caro the trouble: It will be about as thick as the energy-tip pamphlet that accompanies your utility bill. Indeed, it was a shrewd calculation for Obama to run before four or eight years in the Senate left him looking and sounding too much like a veteran of parliamentary procedure.
I get why a senator—Warren most emphatically among them—is pointing to a raft of specific policy ideas as a way of arguing, “If you want a progressive government, you need to know how to turn good intentions into laws and programs.” But Warren’s approach, so far, is not connecting. A list of bills you’ve drafted (that went nowhere thanks to Mitch McConnell) will likely count for little weight in our short-attention span culture. The political appeal of Bernie Sanders, in contrast, lies not in what he’s accomplished in the Senate, or indeed, not in the office he holds at all, but rather in his call for a “revolution.”
Moreover, all of these Senate candidates—even Sanders—have a trail of votes and speeches that will provide tempting targets of opportunity for opponents who come without such baggage. (In the case of one former senator, Joe Biden, there are 46 years’ worth of targets, many of them from a less enlightened age.) We seem to be heading for a campaign in which a passing remark in a junior high school student newspaper will bring demands for apologies if not a stint in a re-education camp. Now imagine being a senator running for office, picturing your foes digging through thousands of pages of your remarks in the Congressional Record.
In that respect, Warren is no worse off than her half-dozen senatorial opponents—which is a good place to note that there’s no reason to banish her to the role of also-ran 10 months before the often-irrelevant Iowa caucuses. Even so, her failure to gain early traction is a reminder that, going back decades, you wouldn’t need the fingers on one hand to count the times when the candidate with the most extensive experience in Washington won the White House—with 2016 serving as a case study on steroids.
The sheer number of senators-turned-presidential candidates in 2020 tells us that this history has not had much of an impact on their ambitions. But if they think their service in the Senate is an actual advantage in this campaign, I’m hard-pressed to see how. So it might be better for all of them to aim a bit lower. From Harry Truman in 1944 through Tim Kaine in 2016, every Democratic vice presidential nominee save Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 has been a sitting U.S. senator.