Senators as presidential candidates: Why Rubio, not Cruz, is GOP’s best chance

Since the 17th amendment that required senators to be directly elected by the people passed in 1913, the only senators to go from Capitol Hill directly to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue were Warren Harding (1920), John F. Kennedy (1960) and Barack H. Obama (2008).  Each possessed the most important political asset of any senator: serving in relative public anonymity as senators. Between them they served a combined total of 18 years. Only Kennedy actually stood for re-election. Once safely in office, JFK began running for the Democratic presidential nomination on his war, not Senate, record. Obama, elected to the Senate in 2004 after losing a race for Congress, began running for president in 2007. His campaign centered on his opposition to President George Bush’s invasion of Iraq while he was a sitting state senator in Springfield, Illinois.

Compare their thin-bare legislative records to the many losing Senators in the post WW II era. Ohio’s Robert Taft, the Republican party’s leading conservative thinker (1948 and 1952); LBJ (Texas), considered the greatest majority leader in the 20th century (1960); “Scoop” Jackson (Wash.), regarded as the Democrats' top authority on military matters (1976); the legendary GOP party leader Howard Baker (Tenn.) (1980); and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe BidenJoe BidenThe Hill's 12:30 Report Dems see huge field emerging to take on Trump Lawmakers send McCain well wishes after cancer diagnosis MORE (D-Del.) (2008), were defeated in nomination battles. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) (1964), then the father of the conservative movement; George McGovern (D-Minn.) (1972), then the leader of the anti-war, progressive movement; GOP Majority leader Bob Dole (Kansas) (1996); Senior Democratic lawmaker John KerryJohn KerryDems see huge field emerging to take on Trump Budowsky: Dems need council of war White House says US-Russia cyber unit would not share intel MORE (Mass.) (2004); and long-serving Republican leader of the party’s moderate wing John McCainJohn McCainOvernight Defense: Trump gets briefing at Pentagon on ISIS, Afghanistan | Senate panel approves five defense picks | Senators want Syria study in defense bill Schwarzenegger tweets to McCain: 'You'll be back' Trump called McCain to wish him well after cancer diagnosis MORE (Ariz.) (2008), were all defeated in the general election.

Thus our 100 percent, time-tested, iron law of presidential politics: If a senator becomes defined in the public mind through legislative service or as an ideological movement leader, he or she cannot go directly to the White House. Why? Senators become known either by legislative accomplishment, or for being cause-oriented and controversial. Neither is a proven path to the presidency from Capitol Hill. Serving quietly, in relative anonymity seems the only sure path from the senate to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

This historic pattern suggests that Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzCruz offers bill to weaken labor board's power Overnight Finance: GOP offers measure to repeal arbitration rule | Feds fine Exxon M for Russian sanctions violations | Senate panel sticks with 2017 funding levels for budget | Trump tax nominee advances | Trump unveils first reg agenda The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (Texas) is a sure-loser, if nominated by the GOP, whereas Marco RubioMarco RubioBush ethics lawyer: Congress must tell Trump not to fire Mueller The private alternative to the National Flood Insurance Program  Cruz offers bill to weaken labor board's power MORE (R-Fla.) just might be the kind of senator who can win. Cruz is the latest Senate cause guy, eager to stand alone on the floor of the chamber.  The Texan’s 21-hour made-for-talk radio filibuster against Obamacare, and his “defund or die” shutdown strategy, made him the ideological darling of talk show economics. That formula requires constantly finding ideological purists with new conservative halos to maintain the audience necessary to charge lucrative advertising rates. Now comes Cruz's Christian-only Syrian refugee legislation. This works brilliantly for talk show jockeys and their radio economics. But it has proven to be the losing image for a presidential candidate.

In stark contrast is the junior senator from Florida, Marco Rubio. Attacked for a lack of substantial experience in the Senate  - he has served less than four years – as well as for a thread-bare legislative record and even missing many floor votes, Rubio might just have the right profile for a U.S. senator seeking the presidency. Although acknowledged as smart, he clearly has not established himself as a major force in the legislative process, and although known for some strongly conservative views he is not perceived as a cause-oriented figure or an ideologue. Rubio thus has the right amount of empty space to create his own presidential campaign persona.

It is of course a fair question whether indeed Senate experience and legislative accomplishment should matter more than they have historically. The 2016 election seems tailor-made instead for a GOP governor or former governor. But governors are the ones dropping out as Cruz and Rubio are making their moves. If the GOP contest morphs into Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump lawyers looking into special counsel's potential conflicts of interest: reports Trump lawyers asking about presidential pardon powers: report Dem rep: Trump threatened Mueller by trying to set limits for Russia probe MORE, Cruz, and Rubio leading the pack, as many now predict, it will be fascinating to see whether Republican voters go with the outsider, the cause guy, or the one who by historical standards looks the most electable. 

Goldman writes a weekly column for the Washington Post and is a former chair of the Virginia Democratic Party. Rozell is acting dean of the School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs at George Mason University.