In November we will elect a sitting US Senator as the next President of the United States. This will buck our usual trend. We tend to elect people that have been president (re-election or election after assuming office), vice president, governor, and/or a war hero general — people that have had high-level political or military executive experience. We tend not to elect people whose highest elective position has been legislative. Still, there are exceptions to this rule.
John Quincy Adams had served a term in the US Senate and had spent more than seven years as US Secretary of State prior to running for the presidency in 1824. In the aftermath of a four-way election, Adams was elected president by the House of Representatives over US Senator (and war hero General) Andrew Jackson, who had won a plurality (but not a majority) of the popular and the electoral votes. (The Speaker of the House hated Jackson.) Jackson came back to beat Adams in the 1828 election by a landslide. Adams subsequently served 17 years in the US House of Representatives, something that would be unthinkable today for a former senator, let alone a former president.
James Buchanan had served two terms as a US Senator before serving for four years as US Secretary of State. He benefited from the breakup of the Whig Party. The newly formed Republican Party offered its first presidential candidate in 1856, but the Republicans split the majority vote with the nativist Know Nothing Party, allowing Buchanan to win with only 45.3% of the popular vote. Like Adams, Buchanan was a one-term president. His great legacy was to preside over a nation that was breaking apart in the run up to the Civil War. His policy was to do nothing about it, and he was more than happy when his presidential term concluded.
Abraham Lincoln had served one term in the US House of Representatives and had run for other offices prior to running for the presidency in 1860. Lincoln won with only 39.8% of the popular vote under a set of circumstances that will likely never be paralleled. Many in the South boycotted the election, the Democratic Party split between northern and southern candidates, and the Know Nothings and Whigs offered a candidate. Still, with much of the South abstaining, Lincoln would have garnered sufficient electoral votes even if all of the other votes cast had been for a single candidate. While Lincoln won re-election in 1864, he was assassinated just weeks after his second term began.
Warren G. Harding was a sitting US Senator (from Ohio) at the time of his election to the presidency in 1920. He convincingly beat Ohio Governor James M Cox, whose running mate was Assistant Secretary of the Navy (and later New York Governor and then US President) Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Harding had served as Ohio’s Lt. Governor, but unlike most of our other presidents, had neither held a higher level elected executive office nor had been a popular war general. Harding ‘looked’ presidential, but he was an awful speech maker. This was not much of a liability in the days before widespread media broadcasts. Harding was popular with the people, although, his administration was rife with corruption. It was a relief to many political insiders when he succumbed to a heart attack in 1923, allowing Vice President (and former Massachusetts Governor) Calvin Coolidge to become president.
It is arguable that since Harding had been a lieutenant governor — the second highest elected state executive position — that he should not be on this list at all. Still, I wanted to include him because the case can also be made that lieutenant governor may or may not provide much real executive experience, depending on the nature of the job in a given state at a given time.
Finally, US Senator John F. Kennedy narrowly beat Vice President Richard M. Nixon in 1960. What is more interesting is that Kennedy’s running mate was another sitting US Senator, Lyndon B. Johnson, who was serving as Senate Majority Leader. Nixon’s running mate was Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., a former US Senator that was serving as US Ambassador to the UN. We had two senators running against a VP/former senator and an ambassador/former senator. It was a senator’s club election. Due to assassination, Kennedy did not complete his presidential term.
Of the list above, Adams and Buchanan didn’t really have vice presidential running mates, since the first runner up in the popular vote used to become the VP. The 12th Amendment altered this state of affairs and our system has evolved so that today the VP runs on the same ticket with the president.
Americans have also elected as president two men that never held high level elected office and had no military experience: William Howard Taft in 1908 and Herbert Hoover in 1928. I don’t put James Madison on the list because he was widely known as one of the Founding Fathers and had served as Speaker of the House and as Secretary of State, which was at that time second in line to succeed to the presidency.
A couple of notes are interesting. Adams, Buchanan, Taft, Harding, Hoover, and Kennedy each served only one or fewer terms as president and Lincoln served only a few weeks of his second term. Thus, historically, presidents elected with no high-level executive elective or military experience are one-term presidents. Over the next few years this pattern will either be affirmed or broken.
This year Americans will again buck the normal presidential election trend. We will elect one of two sitting US Senators, neither of whom have high-level executive experience. Senator Barack Obama’s executive experience consists only of running a skillful presidential campaign. He has selected as his running mate another sitting US Senator, Joe Biden, who likewise lacks any serious executive experience. Obama had a tricky choice to make because he couldn’t select a running mate that would show him up, but he needed someone with some experience.
Senator John McCain’s executive experience comes down to running the largest Naval squadron following the Vietnam War. While McCain is widely considered to be a war hero, having survived 5½ years as a prisoner of war, his highest Naval rank was captain (the same grade as colonel in the Army, Air Force, or Marines), which is unlike being a war general/admiral. McCain has selected Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. At least he didn’t pick another US Senator so we avoid having another senator’s club election. While the young and vivacious Palin has only been governor for less than two years, she has more high-level executive experience than McCain, Obama, and Biden combined.
Michael Barone has said that about every four election cycles, as a new generation of voters hits the mainstream, Americans become more likely to toss experience aside when selecting a president. They are disgusted with politics as usual and are ready for something different. That’s what we’re seeing this year.
Peggy Noonan says (sorry, can’t find link) that looking over the past century, our political system has produced chief executives that are actually rather odd people. Is she right? If so, maybe the nature of the position tends to cause odd people to seek it. Or maybe the nature of the office makes them strange once they get there. Or maybe we Americans are weirder than we think and the president is only a reflection of us as a whole.
Or perhaps people that excel in politics, like many that stand out in the performing arts or in other pursuits, tend to be unbalanced in the other portions of their lives. The same anomalies that cause them to excel in one area cause bizarreness in other areas.
Musings aside, our next chief executive — the person we entrust with running the largest organization on earth — will be one of two sitting US Senators that have little executive experience. Maybe experience isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. I think about Lincoln, for example (although I’m not suggesting that either McCain or Obama could parallel Lincoln). I think we’ll have some clue about this by the mid-term 2010 elections.
In the meantime, I’m afraid that I’ve grown a bit cynical about the current presidential election. I’m not quite as sour about it as is John Derbyshire, but I think he makes some valid points.