THE BLOG
11/11/2013 08:16 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

How a U.S. Senator Can Avoid "The Senate Curse" and Get Elected to the Presidency

Between 1960 and 2008, 50 U.S. Senators sought the Presidency and lost. U.S. Senator Barack Obama broke the nearly half-century "Senate Curse" in 2008 by wining the Presidency.

The Senate is an interesting place in that so many members try to use it as a launching pad to run for President, yet so few achieve success. A litany of graybeard U.S. Senators from Henry "Scoop" Jackson to Richard Lugar and Howard Baker failed to convince voters that their long Senate record and legislative accomplishments were causes belie for voters to elect them to the Presidency. Yet in 2008, Barack Obama was able to break the curse.

The best way for a Senator to get elected President is to use the title of "Senator" to create a national profile outside of the Senate Chamber, not inside it. Rather than hunkering down and learning legislative minutia and crafting legislation in committee, Obama used his seat to raise his profile. Elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004, Obama earned a seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. This afforded him the opportunity to accrue media attention by going on high profile foreign trips to establish his foreign policy bona fides and in doing so became a champion of two issues that had little political downside. The first issue was the interdiction of nuclear weapons. The second issue was government transparency. Obama spent much of the 2006 election cycle continuing to raise his national profile by barnstorming the nation, and by campaigning for Democratic candidates for office. He spent most of the next two years absent from the Senate while running for President.

Ironically, Obama's lack of a long Washington career actually became an asset. Obama focused on his biography and life experiences, presenting himself as an outsider. In addition, with such a thin voting record, his opponents had less votes to exploit against him. Obama handily defeated two of his seasoned Senate colleagues, Chris Dodd and Joe Biden, who both emphasized their Senate experience in the Primary. Obama subsequently defeated John McCain, (a weathered Senate veteran) in the General election.

The only other two U.S. Senators to be elected President were Warren G. Harding in 1920 and John F. Kennedy in 1960. They were the first to break the curse. They also had remarkably similar careers to Obama. Like Obama, they were far from legislative workhorses, and neither Harding nor Kennedy served even as much as a decade in the Senate. Warren G. Harding was elected to the Senate 1914. He received notoriety running as an insurrectionist, challenging the Republican establishment candidate Joseph Forrege. Harding did not use his Senate seat to become a leader in the legislative process. In fact, he was in many respects a Senator in name only, missing almost a third of U.S. Senate votes. Harding instead used the title of Senator to barnstorm the country campaigning for Republican candidates for office, collecting chits for a future Presidential campaign. In the process, Harding became a noted orator, and just two years into his Senate term he was selected to deliver the keynote address at the Republican National Convention in 1916. In that speech, Harding popularized the term "Founding Fathers."

Harding became known for his ability to "bloviate." In fact, he popularized the term, describing bloviate as "the art of speaking for as long as the occasion warrants without saying anything." His speech was a resounding success, and he became a national face card of the Republican Party. Harding ruffled few political feathers in the Party, and in 1920, with the Republican convention deadlocked, Harding became a compromise choice for the Presidency.

John F. Kennedy was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1952. He became an instant national figure for his electoral dexterity in defeating Republican Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., who was the National Chairman of the successful Presidential campaign of Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower won Massachusetts, that year by almost 10 percentage points, while Lodge narrowly lost re-election. Kennedy was far from a workhorse Senator, using his office instead to raise his national profile, to campaign for Democrats running for office around the country, appearing on national television programs, and writing Profiles in Courage, a book that spotlighted U.S. Senators who had taken unpopular stands. Kennedy, like Harding and Obama, was often truant from his Senate responsibilities. In 1958, Kennedy won re-election with 73.20% of the vote over the feckless and underfunded Republican nominee, Richard Celeste, Esq. This demonstrated that his 1952 victory was no fluke and that he could win in what was at the time a closely divided state politically.

In 1960 Kennedy defeated three Senate colleagues to win the Democratic Presidential nomination. They were Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Stuart Symington. All sported greatly accomplished legislative track records. Johnson tried to make Kennedy's absenteeism from the Senate an issue. During a debate, Johnson challenged Kennedy for being on the campaign trail during a six-day Senate debate on Civil Rights legislation. Johnson exclaimed: "It was my considered judgment that my people had sent me to the senate to perform the duties of a United States Senator for which I was paid $22,500 a year." Kennedy responded simply: "It is true that Senator Johnson made a wonderful record in answering those quorum calls and I want to commend him for it." The issue died and Kennedy went on to win the Presidency.

This brings us to the present, wherein three U.S. Senators are believed to be seriously entertaining a bid for the Presidency in 2016. All are freshman, and all have used their office to create a national profile rather than to accumulate experience. The first is Ted Cruz of Texas. Cruz has been in the Senate for less than a year, and is already a national figure. Cruz was hatched from obscurity. He had served as State Solicitor General. He rode the crest of a wave of anti-establishment enmity, and in 2012 he defeated the establishment candidate, Texas Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, in the Republican Primary before "cruzing" to victory in the General election. As a Senator, Cruz did not keep his head down and did not focus on getting acclimated to the ways of the Senate. Cruz stood on the Senate floor for more than 21 hours, excoriating the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare. He is now a folk hero to grassroots conservatives, and is actually the frontrunner for the GOP Presidential nomination in 2016 (to the consternation of many in the party's high command).

Similarly to Cruz's meteoric rise, in 2010 Rand Paul, with de minimis name recognition, defeated the establishment choice for the Republican nomination, Attorney General Jack Conway, for an open U.S. Senate seat. He accomplished this exploit by styling himself as an unabashed Libertarian-Republican intent on attenuating the influence of the Federal Government. After winning the General Election, Paul has become a constant presence on national news shows and in the Social media universe, espousing his Libertarian views. He has carved out a niche as the successor to his father, former U.S. Representative Ron Paul (R-TX), as the leading spokesperson for the Liberation bloodline of the Republican Party, and has a network of supporters ready, willing, and able to campaign for him in 2016.

Macro Rubio, running as an insurgent choice for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination, curried a groundswell of grassroots conservative support, forcing the establishment candidate, Florida Governor Charlie Christ, to flee from the GOP and run as an Independent. However, Rubio went on to win the Senate Seat. As a Senator, Rubio has focused like a laser beam on raising his national profile, emphasizing his biography as the son of Cuban immigrants. He has also become a presence on the campaign trail for his fellow Republicans. In 2013, Rubio delivered the official Republican response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union Address. Rubio has also become an advocate for a robust interventionist foreign policy, counterpoised to Cruz and Paul who share a less activist approach in the international sphere.

All three Senators were active supporters of the recent partial government shutdown, and all three have showcased their vociferous opposition to the Affordable Care Act. They appear to have learned the lesson of Harding, Kennedy and Obama, that Senators can get elected President if they use their sinecure to garner publicity and collect chits from party members by hitting the hustings for their elections and re-elections. They have learned that one should not waste precious time in the Senate burying one's self in legislative minutia. They have learned that in order to make a successful run for the Presidency from the U.S. Senate, they must begin focusing on the Presidential campaign from day one.