At one point in Thursday night’s debate in South Carolina, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie sharply noted the vulnerability of senators as candidates. “When you’re a senator what you get to do is just talk and talk and talk,” he said. “And you talk so much that that nobody can ever keep up with what you're saying is accurate or not. When you're a governor, you're held accountable for everything you do.”
At times, the effort to move from the Senate to the campaign trail has been painful. That was true when Sen. Howard Baker ran for the Republican nomination in 1980. At a New Hampshire town hall meeting, Baker responded to a woman’s question by saying, “The Gentle Lady raises an important point.” The reaction of the crowd was almost palpable. Baker was one of the most respected lawmakers in Washington. But, here, he had used Senate-speak. It turns out that no New Hampshire voter ever calls anyone else a “gentle lady.”
The vulnerability surfaced again when Sen. John Kerry ran in 2004. In discussing a 2003 measure to fund U.S. troops, Kerry said, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” In Washington, they understood Kerry was talking about competing versions of the funding bill. Outside Washington, though, it was confounding double-speak that sounded like flip-flopping. “Other than the Swift Boat attacks,” said Ornstein, “that was probably the most substantial and damaging attack against Kerry.”
It is one of the reasons, he said, why “you are not seeing people run on their records in the Senate and, especially now, not running as Washington insiders.” Such claims, he said, “don’t play all that well in the general election.”
Indeed, the history is being repeated this year. The three current senators fighting for the GOP nomination—Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas, and Rand Paul of Kentucky—are all in their first terms and have been criticized as Senate lightweights. Rubio almost boasts of his missed votes and exhibits open disdain for the Senate.
All three were elected after Obama left the Senate and are part of the new wave of members of Congress that help explain why the president saw so few former colleagues in his audience Tuesday night. Only 185 of the 435 members of the House were in Congress when Obama was a senator; 250 of his former colleagues on that side of the Hill have departed. In the Senate, only 45 of the current members served with Obama.
Just as important as the numbers, said Ornstein, is the attitude of the new members. “Not only is it a lot of people who never served with him, it is a lot of people coming in who have no understanding of the traditions of Congress and of the nature of relations between Congress and the president. They are overwhelmingly shaped by a political culture that is radically different.”
It is why those high hopes of 2008 were so fleeting. Schmoozing has limits. “Friendships and relationships matter,” said Ornstein. “But in this changed environment, they matter a whole lot less than they did 20 or 30 years ago.”