Before she ended her candidacy, Amy Klobuchar touted her legislative record of passing more than 100 bills in Congress. A Vanderbilt study called her the most effective senator in terms of getting legislation passed. Does her withdrawal suggest that her legislative success may have been more of an albatross than a legitimate bragging point? With some exceptions, Americans generally have not valued legislative prowess in their presidential candidates.
Most observers of Congress conclude that Bernie Sanders was not at the forefront of passing legislation during his three decades in Congress. His signature policy, Medicare for All, has only 14 cosponsors in the Senate. Not identifying with the Democrats in the Senate, he is in essence a “backbencher.” Yet, his campaign success shows that lacking legislative prowess is no liability on the presidential campaign trail. It probably is a net positive.
Pete Buttigieg also showed that a thin résumé is no obstacle to presidential campaign success. Looking at the other candidates who have made it to the final rounds of a long campaign, contenders like Tom Steyer and Andrew Yang surged ahead of rivals who had much greater congressional experience. And even Elizabeth Warren has been in the Senate for only eight years.
Past elections show a pattern of disrespecting government expertise. Jimmy Carter was a one-term governor whose major campaign promise was that he would never lie to the American people. His rivals were congressional masters such as Henry Jackson, Birch Bayh, Mo Udall and Frank Church. President Donald Trump differs starkly from Carter in so many ways, but Trump’s call to “drain the swamp” of Washington has a resonance with Carter’s pledge to upend the Nixonian regime of lying and trickery. Trump also defeated a long line of rivals with much experience in governing.
Political scientist Barry Burden noted that newly elected presidents are often not more than 14 years away from their first statewide election victory. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush all met that criteria for minimal government experience. Barack Obama’s rise had a similar track. Echoing the success of candidates with minimal experience in government, he campaigned to transform Washington with a sense of “hope and change.” With only four years of experience in the Senate, he defeated John McCain, who was widely known as the lion of the Senate.
Burden notes that the only exceptions to this general rule are former vice presidents such as Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush and Al Gore (in the popular vote). Service as vice president can transform a long governmental résumé into electoral viability. Yet more often than not, the “making of the president” in America is a search for a fresh visionary, not a legislative mastermind. Klobuchar had a steep climb this year.
Biden’s hope is that he can follow the path of other former vice presidents, yet it will not be easy. Promises to “make America great” are the elixirs that strong candidates dispense to a hungry electorate. Talking about the “audacity of hope” is a better strategy than acclaiming one’s skills in the murky art of passing legislation. Sanders is successful because he articulates a transformative and inspiring vision. Biden’s service as vice president will help him, but he needs to shed his decades in the Senate and start anew.
Dan Hofrenning is a professor of political science at St. Olaf College. He spent January in New Hampshire teaching a class on the process of nominating presidential candidates. He’s at email@example.com.