In the 1960 Democratic presidential race, there were a handful of contenders, including Sens. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota and Stuart Symington of Missouri. Others, including Florida Sen. George Smathers and California Gov. Pat Brown, ran as “favorite sons.”
The 1968 Republican presidential field included former Vice President Richard Nixon, and Govs. George Romney of Michigan, Ronald Reagan of California and Nelson Rockefeller of New York. The GOP contest also featured favorite sons, including Govs. Jim Rhodes of Ohio and John Volpe of Massachusetts.
In those cases and most others, the serious combatants were political heavyweights. Fast-forward to today and the 2020 Democratic field, much like the 2016 GOP field, looks like a laundry list of presidential wannabes, some of whom have been in politics for 15 minutes and done little to establish their campaign or public policy bona fides.
Favorite sons fell out of favor as primaries multiplied and national conventions became nothing more than televised extravaganzas, not places where nominations were decided.
But perhaps the most startling change in presidential contests is the growing number of very junior hopefuls who apparently believe that the only office that matters is the presidency. Many have little or no experience, only mountains of ambition.
In the current Democratic field, that list includes California Rep. Eric Swalwell, 38, who is now serving his fourth term in the House, and Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, 40, who’s in his third term. Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, 38, is serving her fourth term, while Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, 45, is in his ninth. Pete Buttigieg, 37, is finishing his second term as mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
I know, the current president had no experience when he was elected, and Jimmy Carter proved that an obscure politician can win his party’s nomination if he starts early enough and surprises in an early primary or caucus contest. So, “anything can happen.” We are in a different era.
But the last mayor to be nominated by a major party was DeWitt Clinton in 1812. Then the mayor of New York City, he lost to James Madison.
In fact, no mayor has gone straight to the White House, though some (New Yorkers John Lindsay and Rudy Giuliani) have tried.
The last House member — make that the only House member — ever to go directly to the White House was James Garfield.
Looked at from a very different point of view, the candidacies of recent underprepared hopefuls, from Ben Carson, Gary Bauer and Herman Cain to Dennis Kucinich, Al Sharpton and some in the current Democratic field, say something a bit disturbing about how we now view politics and government. The presidency has become the focal point of American politics at a time when other governmental posts and offices appear increasingly devalued.
The end of earmarks undercut the power of party leaders in Congress, including committee chairs, and the growth of cable television and the internet have created personalities and organizers who compete for influence with the political parties.
The same goes for super PACs, who can create a competitive candidate instantly, no matter his or her lack of experience.
And while Congress is deadlocked over important issues, the president’s executive power seems enhanced.
Both Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump have governed increasingly via executive order, even disregarding congressional subpoenas.
In contrast to the presidential hopefuls stands the current speaker, Democrat Nancy Pelosi, who understands the continued importance of Congress and of her position.
Of course, she grew up in a political family and learned the value of serving in the House for 16 full terms.
Instead of seeing the House as a career and a platform from which to help their districts and the country as a whole, Swalwell, Gabbard, Moulton and to a lesser extent Ryan (who challenged Pelosi for leader after the 2016 elections) have joined the 2020 presidential race.
Obviously, these four House members don’t expect to be nominated. They are running either out of ego or to increase their name identification so they can make some other career move.
But it says something that each believes his or her candidacy for president will be helpful.
The same goes to some extent for the lengthy list of senators and governors running.
Yes, every senator looks into the mirror and sees a future president, but it is still telling that so many current and former senators have, over the last two presidential contests, sought the presidency instead of building seniority in the Senate and moving up the leadership ladder.
This cycle, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, both Texans, have chosen to seek the presidency when they could have been running for other offices that might enable them to make national policy and grow into higher office, as well as help their party perhaps take back the Senate.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, made the same decision Tuesday. (May 14).
Of course, timing is everything. Some politicians in the past waited for the perfect opportunity to run for the White House only to find they missed their chance (Jack Kemp is an obvious example), while others initially dismissed urgings to run only to be convinced that some opportunities come along once in a lifetime (e.g., Barack Obama).
While there are other avenues for government service besides the presidency, increasingly ambitious political hopefuls choose the presidential route, regardless of whether they possess the experience and maturity to be successful chief executives.
That has made for bloated presidential fields, obligatory media coverage of second- and third-tier hopefuls and the sense that only the presidency matters.
That is unfortunate.
Note: This column appeared initially in the May 14, 2019 issue of Roll Call.