WASHINGTON – While the practice of congressional members running for office is a time-honored tradition, political experts who love to point out the high failure rates are predicting the latest presidential contenders will be ritually unsuccessful while they also sacrifice their duties on Capitol Hill.
"There are always a bunch of senators who look in the mirror every morning and say ‘hail to the chief’ to see if it fits," said GOP strategist Rich Galen, editor of Mullings.com. "They make a lot of noise, but they have never ascended to the presidency."
There have only been two sitting senators who have been elected president in American history – Warren G. Harding and John F. Kennedy. James Garfield won the presidency in 1880, the only seated House member ever to do so. All three died while serving as president.
But that doesn’t stop lawmakers from running — or even running more than once. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who is gunning for the 2004 Democratic nomination, sought the nomination in 1992. Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., ran in 1988 and flirted with running in 2000.
Joining them in the field this time around is Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., who ran unsuccessfully for vice president on Al Gore’s presidential ticket in 2000. Sens. John Edwards, D-N.C., Bob Graham, D-Fla., and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio are also eyeing the prize.
Galen said these Capitol Hill denizens don’t have the "skill set" to run for president. Rather, they are micromanagers who are bested by governors who have executive experience and are often seen as Washington outsiders — an attractive badge for the general election.
"Governors are perfectly trained to run large organizations, like generals if you will, and are much better candidates," he said.
Adds Richard Semiatin, professor of government at American University: "Since the 1960s there has been a decline in public trust in the government. Candidates who have been seen as outside Washington have had a better shot.
"And as governments have become more complex, it is better to have someone who has had experience with multibillion-dollar budgets. It makes them stronger in advertising themselves as candidates for president," Semiatin added.
But Tom King, Democratic strategist, doesn’t agree that the pattern of the past must apply to 2004. He forecasts a backlash against President Bush, who was governor of Texas when he was elected, especially if the economy is not revitalized or the war against Iraq doesn’t go as planned. This might give a boost to seasoned Democratic leaders in the race.
"The race is wide open at this time," King said. "Last time, we elected a governor who was not ready for prime time. This time, we could see the voters’ reaction against that, going for more experience. They may look to Washington and someone who actually knows where the White House is."
In pursuit of this dream, members of Congress who have expressed interested in running will have to raise millions of dollars, make daily grabs for media attention and likely miss votes on Capitol Hill while campaigning in key primary states like New Hampshire and Iowa.
"They’re going to be running on accumulated intellectual capital because there won’t be time to learn any new issues in any depth," said Mike Franc, a political analyst for the Heritage Foundation, who added that most of the candidates will be whittled down due to lack of funding or bad performances in the polls.
The Republican National Committee has already taken its shots at the members’ lost votes in the current session of Congress. According to a chart developed by the GOP, Gephardt has missed 64 percent of the votes taken in the House this year. Of the senators, Kerry has missed 49 percent of the votes in the Senate so far this year, Lieberman has missed 35 percent and Edwards has missed 19 percent.
"They will say that the votes didn’t matter," said RNC Spokesman Kevin Sheridan. "But it’s fairly clear that they are out there to service their own political interests and not their constituents."
On the other hand, Graham, a latecomer to the race who decided to run just two weeks ago, has missed 5 percent of the votes, primarily because he has been out recovering from heart surgery.
Democratic officials countered the criticism by saying the votes taken were for measures in which the conclusions were foregone and did not require the members cast their votes.
"Sen. Lieberman takes his responsibilities very seriously," said Lieberman spokesman Jano Cabrera. "He will occasionally miss a vote, but in all of the instances cited [by the RNC], his vote would have not changed the outcome at all. I think people should question the source of this material."
More important than the missed votes, critics say that the field of senators running to distinguish themselves from the pack might muddy the overall message of the Democratic Party.
Semiatin thinks the Democrats need to unite behind one candidate, and soon.
"The Republicans did a very smart thing in 1999 when party leaders converged behind George W. Bush. It really took the steam out of most of the field," he said. "If Democrats were smart they’d do the same thing right now."
But party leaders reject soundly the theory that the hopefuls from the Hill are wasting their time.
"Clearly Republicans are concerned about the experience, the energy and the potential threat these candidates embody," said Guillermo Meneses, Democratic National Committee spokesman. "Bush is beatable. I think to gather all of this experience and energy is formidable."