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.

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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 BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenBiden slams Trump immigration policies: 'It’s about xenophobia' GOP pollster says Michelle Obama one of Democrats' best surrogates Meghan McCain: 'Don't underestimate' Bernie Sanders 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 Forbes KerryWarren taps longtime aide as 2020 campaign manager In Virginia, due process should count more than blind team support Trump will give State of Union to sea of opponents MORE (Mass.) (2004); and long-serving Republican leader of the party’s moderate wing John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMellman: Where are good faith and integrity? GOP senator says Republicans didn't control Senate when they held majority Pence met with silence after mentioning Trump in Munich speech 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 CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzO'Rourke mulling another Senate run as well as presidential bid Texas senator introduces bill to produce coin honoring Bushes Trump working on labels for 2020 Dems: report MORE (Texas) is a sure-loser, if nominated by the GOP, whereas Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioIvanka must recalibrate her paid family leave plan to make it tenable The United States needs a career ambassador in Honduras Rubio in Colombia to push for delivery of humanitarian aid to Venezuela 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 John TrumpTrump nominates Jeffrey Rosen to replace Rosenstein at DOJ McCabe says ‘it’s possible’ Trump is a Russian asset McCabe: Trump ‘undermining the role of law enforcement’ 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.