The Trouble With Being a Senator Is Voting

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.

Senator Johnson made that difference a specific issue at the Los Angeles convention. Delegates rejected the idea that good attendance in the Senate was important and selected John Kennedy on the first ballot. Senator Kennedy went on to defeat the Republican nominee, Richard Nixon in November.

I should note at this point -- as no doubt many of you are noting to yourselves -- that Messrs. Johnson and Humphrey later became their party's presidential nominees, in 1964 and 1968, ,, respectively, and that Mr. Nixon, who would be elected president in 1968 and 1972, was once a senator, too. It is sitting senators I'm talking about being so feckless in presidential politics.

Those three men had long intervals of doing something else -- vice presidents all -- between their Senate service and their presidential nominations. The new posts and lapsed time overcame the liability of Senate votes. One other ex-senator would win a presidential nomination in 1984. That was Democrat Walter Mondale of Minnesota, vice president from 1977 to 1981.

Two sitting senators won presidential nominations after John Kennedy. They both were buried under landslides that were due in large part to their voting records.

Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona was the party's leader in 1964. As a direct result of his voting against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he lost badly even in eternally Republican precincts in states such as Indiana and New Hampshire.


Democratic Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota was his party's leader in 1972. As a direct result of what many Democrats considered his extreme anti-war votes and rhetoric in the Senate, he lost even in New York, Rhode Island and Hawaii, Democratic paradises.

Senators try harder these days. In 1976, Sen. Henry Jackson of Washington and Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana lost the Democratic nomination to Jimmy Carter, a private citizen and an ex-governor.

Mr. Carter defeated Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts in 1980's primaries. In 1980, Ronald Reagan, ex-governor of California, won the Republican nomination by defeating several candidates, including Senators Robert Dole of Kansas and Howard Baker of Tennessee.

In 1984, Senators Gary Hart of Colorado and John Glenn of Ohio were notable losers (to Mr. Mondale) on the Democratic side.

In 1988, Senators Hart, Joseph Biden of Delaware and Albert Gore of Tennessee all lost to Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts on the Democratic side and Senator Dole lost again that year to Vice President George Bush in the Republican race.

I'm not saying those losers lost solely because of having been forced to take a stand on important issues on roll call votes. But I am saying it hurts.


Senators vote a lot more today than they did in John Kennedy's day. Those 207 roll call votes have about doubled. In 1987, in the year leading up to his critical defeat by George Bush in the New Hampshire primary of 1988, Senator Dole cast 369 recorded votes. This framed a record for him that he could not deny. It dictated how far he could go on the issues of the day in campaign debate.

So I don't think it is just a coincidence that only four sitting senators have been nominated by the major parties for president in the last 130 years, and only two elected. It doesn't even make statistical sense. There are twice as many senators at any one time as there are governors.

Now, what about the Democrats' favorite governor, Mario Cuomo? Where exactly does he stand on the issue of the day? Hard to say.

In a speech in Washington in December, Governor Cuomo said President Bush should not be so "preoccupied" with the Persian Gulf. In a speech in Albany in January, he said he "supported" American men and women in the area. On Jan. 12, the day the Senate voted, he said, "If limited to the choices presently before the Congress, I would prefer the position advocated by Senator Nunn." Senator Nunn opposed use of force for the time being.

That record is much more equivocal and malleable than "yea" or "no" on authorizing the use of troops in combat. Note that "if limited," with its implication that perhaps the senators should come up with other, better positions.

A few days kater, in a long press conference duel with reporters in Albany, the governor refused to answer when specifically asked if he thought the Senate had or had not done the right thing. He parried with the reporters by asking them what "right" and "correct" meant.


This record of evasiveness on the issue might be quite serviceable in a presidential campaign. Some voters will be mad at the "yeas," some at the "nays," and some, perhaps, will just prefer someone fresh to the debate, someone not really committed to any past policy, only to a future one.

Am I predicting Governor Cuomo in 1992? The developments in the Persian Gulf and the spot on which they have put senators sure improve his chances, but it is still possible that 1992 might be one of those rare senator years, a year against the grain of the historical record.

Anyone, even a senator, could probably beat the president in 1992 if the war in the gulf goes badly.

If things work out well in the gulf, on the other hand, no one can beat him -- not a governor with an equivocal record, not a senator who has been reduced to a senatorial cheer leader for the commander in chief's victory, and especially not one who on the record opposed and tried to prevent the implementation of the policy that led to the victory.