A Capitol Idea Seldom Leads to Presidency
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 9, 1999; Page A1
Pursuing his party's presidential nomination for the first half of this year, Ohio Rep. John R. Kasich, chairman of the House Budget Committee, found what many other Capitol Hill lawmakers have learned: that a hefty portfolio of legislative accomplishments doesn't cut much ice on the primary trail.
So last month Kasich became the first official dropout from the potential 2000 field, struck down by the curse of Congress that has felled all 32 other members of the House and Senate who have sought to vault into the White House in the last 10 elections.
"I thought with the budget agreement" -- the 1997 negotiation that produced the first balanced budget in decades -- "and what I think has been a pretty high-visibility role I've performed in Congress since 1995, I'd be better known," Kasich mused last week. "But I was not well-known."
Kasich, who joined the race on Feb. 15 and dropped out on July 14, is giving his staff until the end of August to dismantle his campaign. [Details, Page C1.]
It always seems to surprise lawmakers who cut a wide swath on Capitol Hill and the rest of Washington that the voters outside the Beltway give so little deference to their accomplishments. But the only candidates who went directly from Congress to the White House in this century were Sens. Warren G. Harding of Ohio in 1920 and John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts in 1960. So, despite the recurrence of the 40-year cycle in 2000, the problems that have plagued all the others -- from scheduling conflicts to embarrassing votes to distrust of Washington -- seem to be exercising their hex again this year.
If you ask Kasich, he will tell you it wasn't his 17 years on Capitol Hill that hobbled him so badly that he abandoned the race before the first vote was cast. "I don't think I fell short because I was a House member," he said in an interview. Rather, it was Texas Gov. George W. Bush's "capability as a candidate, plus his support from the Republican establishment, that just didn't leave enough oxygen" to sustain a first-time challenger.
On the other hand, Kasich said, "I wouldn't want to try this again from the House. I'm leaving the House," not running for reelection, "but I'm not giving up my dream to be president."
He went on to acknowledge that "one thing that really surprised me was that I was not as well-known as I thought I would be. I was known among the C-SPAN junkies and the real party followers. But I had name identification problems in Iowa and New Hampshire."
Kasich's departure leaves three other longtime legislators still bucking the odds -- Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and Senate ethics committee Chairman Robert C. Smith (N.H.). But Smith has given up the GOP race to seek a third-party nomination, and Hatch is regarded as the darkest of dark horses.
Of the men other than Kennedy and Harding elected president since 1900, tallied by their last public offices before they reached the White House, there were seven vice presidents, five governors, two Cabinet members and one Army general. Since 1960, when Kennedy defeated a Democratic field that included Sens. Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota, Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas and Stuart S. Symington of Missouri, 23 senators and nine House members have run for the presidency -- some of the senators more than once. Only three were nominated -- Barry Goldwater of Arizona and Robert J. Dole of Kansas by the GOP, and George S. McGovern of South Dakota by the Democrats. None came close to winning.
Included among the losers were a number of men who were prominent or powerful on Capitol Hill -- Democrats such as Sens. Edmund S. Muskie of Maine, Henry M. Jackson of Washington and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, and Reps. Morris K. Udall of Arizona and Wilbur Mills of Arkansas; Republicans such as Sens. Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee and Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, and Reps. Jack Kemp of New York and John B. Anderson of Illinois.
"Many are called, but few are chosen," observed Thomas E. Mann, the Brookings Institution scholar on Congress, who said you have to wonder why, given this record of futility, so many try. Answering his own question, Mann said: "Congress accumulates people with high levels of ambition, and because they have regular contact with occupants of the Oval Office, they come away feeling they are every bit as talented. They are conversant with national issues and they are well-connected with other players -- political consultants, people who broker contributions and political reporters."
But, Mann went on, "it is amazing the extent to which politicians in Washington overestimate their visibility and the extent of their reputations outside the small community of policy and politics watchers. We know that even skilled legislators are better known at home for the constituency work they do, so why should anyone imagine that a broader public would have any understanding of their reputation in Washington?"
Ask the members of Congress who have run or are running for the White House, and they tell you the advantage of coming off Capitol Hill, as House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), who tried his luck in 1988, put it, is mainly that "you are conversant with the issues and you know how to discuss them. Being a member of Congress gives you some standing in people's minds and helps you get past that first threshold of credibility."
"You're forced to keep up to speed on the issues," agreed Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who was bumped out of contention in 1992. "And in Congress, you're surrounded by people from every state, and you get a sense from them of what's important in their states -- a feel for what you shouldn't say and what you should emphasize."
But all of them said the disadvantages outweigh the benefits of serving on the Hill. Those begin with scheduling problems.
"If you're at all conscientious and attempt to do even a semblance of your normal work, running for president and being a senator are simply incompatible," said Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), an early casualty in 1996. He recalled being stuck in the Senate managing a farm bill while some of his rivals were telling Iowans how they would solve agriculture problems.
Former senator Gary Hart (D-Colo.), who ran in both 1984 and 1988, said that he was "beat up by the hometown papers" for absenteeism during his first race, so he retired before trying it again. "I decided I couldn't justify taking that much time off from the Senate twice. You can't pretend to be a full-time senator and run for president."
Hatch, whose Judiciary Committee is one of the busiest venues in Congress, said that in his current campaign, far from stressing his 23 years of experience on Capitol Hill, he is telling voters, "I have been fighting a lot of things in Washington. . . . I have never been a member of what you would call the inside cliques around here."
But Hatch acknowledged that he is criticized by some Republicans for his willingness to work out policy compromises with Kennedy -- illustrating what Lugar said he found to be an inherent problem for legislators. "Most people who are successful in Congress are those that make a substantial number of compromises in order to advance broader objectives," Lugar said. "Making large social or economic policy changes is a tedious, grinding process. Even if you have a solid body of achievement, it is not likely to lead to excitement. And it dulls the presentation you are likely to make."
McCain, who has negotiated some bills to passage and bucked his party leadership on others, echoed Kasich's comment that people know his record "a lot less than I'd hoped they would. They know I'm a senator. They see me on the talk shows. They hear me on Imus. But there's not really any knowledge of what I do here. I bet not one in 50 voters in New Hampshire knows I'm the chairman of the Commerce Committee."
Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), who lost out in the 1992 competition and decided against trying again in 2000, said, "It is not an accident we haven't elected a president from the Senate since 1960." He cited the scheduling conflicts and the fact that "senators are constantly voting and you have to be prepared to defend those votes."
And then he added another negative: "People have a much lower opinion of federal politicians than of governors. They think there's much more corruption in Washington, D.C. Only a small percentage know what you've done in Congress, and if you're a junior senator, as I was in 1992, you're down there with the single-cell species."
© 1999 The Washington Post Company