Aside from the more obvious historical firsts that Barack Obama achieved when he was elected president, he also won kudos on Capitol Hill for another reason: He was the first sitting member of Congress to win the job in five decades, only the fourth man ever to accomplish that move.
The fact that Joe Biden went straight from the Senate to the vice presidency drew far less attention, and with good reason — lawmakers actually have a strong track record of winning the No. 2 job.
So what does that mean for Mitt Romney, the presumed 2012 Republican nominee? Will the former Massachusetts governor look to “balance” the ticket with a pick from the Hill?
Coverage of Romney’s selection process has included a host of possibilities: Maybe he’s looking for an ideological counterweight, or reinforcement for his own strengths, or excitement, or a swing-state boost or diversity. You don’t often hear that he’s looking specifically for a member of Congress.
Yet if you believe the latest speculation — and really, why wouldn’t you? — there are at least three lawmakers attracting significant buzz to be Romney’s running mate: Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio), Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.). A handful of governors also have drawn attention: Chris Christie (N.J.), Bobby Jindal (La.), Susana Martinez (N.M.) and Robert McDonnell (Va.).
History alone suggests that the members have an advantage.
“We’ve had very few senators directly elected to the presidency, but quite a lot to the vice presidency,” said Donald A. Ritchie, the Senate historian.
Three of the last four vice presidents came straight from the Senate — Biden (D-Del.), Al Gore (D-Tenn.) and Dan Quayle (R-Ind.) — and 14 of the last 17 men to hold the office had congressional service on their resumes.
By contrast, only two sitting governors have been picked for vice president on a ticket in the last 40 years: Spiro Agnew of Maryland in 1972 and Sarah Palin of Alaska in 2008. And it’s been more than 70 years since the last time —1940 — that a winning ticket had no congressional experience at all.
“A lot of times you have a governor who’s running [for president], and they want someone who says they know what’s happening in Washington,” Ritchie said. “They’re supposed to be there in part to balance and show you’ve got some expertise.”
The vice president’s portfolio includes the mostly ceremonial job of Senate president. But many occupants of the office have taken on the substantive task of serving as their administration’s chief liaison to Capitol Hill.
Richard B. Cheney frequently played that role during his eight years in office, and Biden does the same now. Biden negotiated a deal with Republicans on tax-cut extensions in 2010 and played a leading part in all of last year’s contentious negotiations over raising the debt ceiling and cutting spending.
“The United States Senate has been my life, and that is not a hyperbole,” Biden said in his farewell speech to the Senate in January 2009. “It literally has been my life. . . . And I may be resigning from the Senate today, but I will always be a Senate man.”
Senators may have a strong vice presidential track record, but House members don’t.
The last person to go directly from the House to vice president was Gerald R. Ford (R-Mich.), and he was appointed to the job after Agnew resigned. Ford was never actually elected vice president (or president). The last man to be elected vice president straight from the House was John Nance Garner (D-Texas) in 1932.
Some vice presidents have previous House service but held important intervening jobs before entering the White House. They include George H.W. Bush, who served in the House for two terms and went on to be ambassador to the United Nations and CIA director before becoming vice president; and Cheney, who was Defense secretary and Halliburton chief executive between stints in Congress and the White House.
Jody Baumgartner, a political science professor at East Carolina University and author of “The American Vice Presidency Reconsidered,” has built a model to predict vice presidential selection, based on picks since 1960, and his formula gives recent service as a senator significant weight in a candidate’s chance of being picked. (Baumgartner is waiting for a shorter list of candidates before running the model for 2012.)
Baumgartner said it was clear to him why members of Congress weren’t often picked for the very top job.
“Try to explain the nuances of being a member of the legislature in a 30-second spot,” Baumgartner said. It’s not possible, “not in the television age.”
To illustrate his point, he cited Sen. John F. Kerry’s (D-Mass.) much-mocked “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it” quote during his 2004 presidential campaign.
So why wouldn’t the same flaw hurt a member of Congress running for vice president?
“Because they just don’t matter” to the final vote, Baumgartner said. “The experience of Sarah Palin notwithstanding, nobody’s really paying that much attention to the second pick.”
For previous In Session columns, go to PostPolitics.com.