Senator, governor: Who makes the best prez?

By Chuck Springston
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Photos: Rubio's Senate office/ state of New Jersey website.
During the Republican presidential debate Feb. 6, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey challenged the credentials of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

    “Every morning when a United States senator wakes up, they think about what kind of speech can I give or what kind of bill can I drop,” Christie said. “Every morning when I wake up, I think about, what kind of problem do I need to solve for the people who actually elected me. It’s a different experience.”
    Senators, on the other hand, argue that they have more experience in foreign policy, a major responsibility of a president, and they understand the workings of Congress and federal agencies, both of which are key players in determining the success of a president's agenda.
    So who makes the better president – governor or senator? We asked the very question two years ago. Here is the analysis by Chuck Springston.

    Jan. 13, 2014 -- By the end of this year, after the November congressional elections, aspirants for the presidency in 2016 will begin announcing the official start of their campaigns.
     On the Democratic side there’s Hillary Clinton, former New York senator, and Martin O’Malley, governor of Maryland. The Republicans have Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and possibly the politically troubled Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey. Most candidates are likely to be current or former senators or governors. So which of those positions — assuming candidates of roughly equal character and charisma — is the best training ground for the nation’s top job?
     The case for governors:  They are chief executives who run large organizations with thousands of workers. They have experience appointing directors of administrative agencies and making sure they effectively implement policies. Successful governors know how to work with legislators to get their proposals passed into law.
     Now the case for senators: They generally have at least some experience — and often strong expertise — in foreign policy, military affairs and other national security matters, arguably a president’s most important responsibilities. They know firsthand many federal lawmakers who will be voting on the president’s proposals and may have built alliances or friendships with some of them.
     In early 1951, an ambitious Massachusetts politician, U.S. Rep. John F. Kennedy, was looking at the political landscape in the state and figured there could be an opportunity to run for either governor or senator the next year.
     One day in his Boston apartment overlooking the state capitol, Kennedy, a World War II veteran with an intense interest in international affairs, was musing about which position he might get and said to an aide, “I don’t look forward to sitting over there in the governor’s office and dealing out sewer contracts,” recounts Chris Matthews in his book, “Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero” [2011, Simon & Schuster]. 

     The winning candidates

     Kennedy, a Democrat, was elected to the Senate in 1952, re-elected in 1958 and won the presidency in 1960. He is one of only three men elected president while still serving in the Senate. The other two sitting senators elected president were Republican Warren G. Harding of Ohio in 1920 and Democrat Barack Obama of Illinois in 2008.
     Tennessee Democrat Andrew Jackson, while technically not a sitting senator when elected president in 1828, had resigned his Senate seat in 1825 solely to prepare for the race. Republican Sen. Benjamin Harrison of Indiana lost a re-election bid in 1887 but just a year later announced his presidential campaign.
     Jackson and Harrison thus join the list of those who ran directly from the Senate to the White House — without any intervening government office, such as vice president or secretary of state.
     There are six presidents who won election while still serving as governor: Republican Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio in 1876, Democrat Grover Cleveland of New York in 1884, Democrat Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey in 1912, Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York in 1932, Democrat Bill Clinton of Arkansas in 1992 and Republican George W. Bush of Texas in 2000.
     Four other men who had left the governor’s chair moved directly to the White House without any intervening government service.
     Democrat James K. Polk of Tennessee was defeated in a re-election battle for governor in 1841, then lost another gubernatorial race two years later, but ran for president in 1844 and won. Republican Gov. William McKinley of Ohio left office in January 1896 and was elected president in November.
     Democratic Gov. Jimmy Carter of Georgia finished his term in January 1975 and was elected president in November 1976. Republican Gov. Ronald Reagan of California left office in 1975, unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for president in 1976 and beat Carter in 1980.

     The winning performances

     So which presidents did a better job? Those who went straight from the Senate to the White House? Or those who went from the governor’s house to the White House?
     Whether or not someone is a “good” president may depend on your views of his policies, but we can perhaps more objectively determine whether someone has had a “successful” presidency. A successful president accomplishes at least some of his major goals, effectively deals with crises and has an impact that extends beyond his term.
     We can get some measure of success from various presidential rankings based on surveys of academics, journalists and other professional president-watchers. In surveys that include every president from George Washington through George W. Bush, there are 20 names that consistently rank in the upper half of all presidents, a position that would seem to indicate a successful presidency.
     Looking at the senators who became president without any intervening jobs (and excluding Obama because his term hasn’t been completed), we find that Jackson and Kennedy make the top 20, while Harding and Harrison usually rank near the bottom. Thus, about half of the senators have been successful presidents.
     The 10 governors who took a direct path to the presidency include seven in the top 20: Polk, Cleveland, McKinley, Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Reagan and Clinton. Hayes, Carter and Bush are scattered among the lower half. Thus, about 70 percent of the governors were successful presidents.
     Despite the debate over whether senators or governors make better presidents, only 15 occupants of the White House have been catapulted directly to the presidency from either of those positions — a little more than one-third.
     The vice presidency took 14 men to the White House — nine of them through the death of the president. The highest government positions held by others before becoming president include Army general, executive agency leader and member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
     Interestingly, three presidents previously had experience as senators, governors and vice presidents. Surely they must have been among the best prepared and most successful. Not so. The three are Democrats Martin Van Buren of New York, John Tyler of Virginia and Andrew Johnson of Tennessee. All are grouped near the bottom of the rankings. Go figure.
     We don’t know yet what might happen if the resume includes “former first lady.”


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