Senate experience wins debates

From the department of So What? comes evidence that legislators might talk a good game when running for president, but over the years, voters’ clear preference is for proven executives.

Two mayors and a senator. Why is this important?

my last piece about executive experience, I noted that it seemed like candidates with experience running things, like cities, have a leg up on politicians that come to the game as legislators. Guys like Mike Bloomberg and Pete Buttigieg were mayors, and importantly Bloomberg ran New York, a city bigger by population that 40 of the 50 US states. Even Donald Trump, who ran what has to be called a mom and pop real estate company — on steroids, admittedly — had the executive experience and bearing to win the presidency. And say what you want about Bernie Sanders, he cut his political teeth running the thriving metropolis of Burlington, VT. And we all know about Mayor Pete.

Being chief executive gives you a certain perspective. Unlike all the other jobs in politics, the executive has to get things done, not by committee and sometimes by brute force. The Executive branch of government is full of executives called department secretaries. They have massive responsibilities for specialized parts of government. They are approved by the Senate and report to the President who has the ability to terminate them without cause. So the president is really the executive of executives. It’s a rarefied position.

But now there’s a corollary that we should look at. The people running for high office who took the legislative route to get to the primaries also have advantages. The legislators, by definition have jobs that require more collaboration. For them the worst outcome of any discussion seems to be no, followed by yes and always trumped by maybe.

A strange order? Perhaps, but yes and no are terminal; they end discussions. Sure, if your interlocutor says yes then you have a deal, but that pretty much ends the discussion and no needs little explanation here. With maybe, on the other hand, you get to keep talking and talking with the objective of please, let’s not get to no.

This gives your average senator or representative an automatic advantage in debate and it was crystal clear in the Charleston Democratic debate. When Elizabeth Warren went after Mike Bloomberg over the non-disclosure agreements that his former employees signed over alleged sexual harassment incidents, it was a telling moment. Warren had done the same thing in another debate but since that time Bloomberg had released some of his former employees from their NDAs and spun up a TV ad full of women saying what a great boss Bloomberg had been.

It’s worth pointing out that NDAs can be used for lots of different reasons when a person or corporation wants to keep things under wraps. For example, I agree to NDAs as a normal part of business in order to get advance notice of vendor announcements. Because of this, I’m able to write ahead of the news so that my analysis and commentary can break soon after the announcement clears — and the NDA becomes moot.

Generally, an NDA has stipulations such as a 3-year time limit on the information, and an automatic release if the information becomes public through no fault of mine. Also, I’ve never agreed to any penalties for improper release, often because the time limit is very short, typically a week or two, and because I’d be harming my own reputation if I spill the beans. These NDAs and my reputation mean that often there is no document to sign, just an email that says sure, I’ll keep your secret. Nonetheless, I always check to ensure what the terms are.

Okay, back to Bloomberg and Warren.

Bloomberg released some people from their NDAs and, we have to give the benefit of the doubt to the others whose NDAs might have covered other information — we have to make that assumption else there’s no real NDA, right? Imagine the situation where Bloomberg or his organization said all of their NDAs are over sexual harassment. What would be the point of NDAs at all?

Okay, really, let’s get back to Bloomberg and Warren.

After Bloomberg had done all that he’d done between debates to answer Warren’s criticisms, she still decided to go back to the well one more time to score some political points. Bloomberg was not defenseless, but you could tell he didn’t understand Warren’s persistence (something she’s famous for and that I respect). But you could tell by his response. “The trouble is with this senator is enough is never enough,” he said. And the look on his face seemed to ask don’t I have a meeting or something important to be doing instead of this? Importantly, Warren might have won that exchange but it doesn’t really add up to something that could propel her campaign. It could help her win the nomination but against Trump? Meh… On the other hand, Bloomberg looked like an executive pressed for time. Not a good look.

That, in a nutshell, is the difference between an executive and a legislator. Perhaps one is not better than the other and it sometimes leads me to despair that our choices seem to be between people who do things and those who talk a lot.

Who was the last legislator to become president? In the last 60 years John Kennedy was elected when he faced Richard Nixon, both of whom had been senators, Nixon also had the ceremonial title of Vice President. Lyndon Johnson succeeded Kennedy and only after that won an election. Nixon came back in 1968 to beat Hubert Humphrey a senator and former mayor. Gerald Ford had been a representative and was appointed to the presidency through the machinations of Watergate.

On the flipside, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush had all been governors and W’s father GHW Bush had been CEO of his own company and held several executive jobs in and out of government in addition to being Reagan’s VP. That leaves us with Barak Obama who beat John McCain in 2008. Both had been senators and the election was, in some ways, a reprise of 1960’s Kennedy-Nixon election.

My conclusion?

Executives win a lot of presidential elections when the choice is between one executive and one legislator. When a senator challenges a sitting president, the result is almost always re-election of the president. Think about Johnson-Goldwater, Nixon-Humphrey, Reagan-Mondale, W. vs. Kerry. It’s even a heavy lift for a governor to beat a sitting president which is borne out with FDR-Dewey, Truman-Dewey, Eisenhower-Stephenson (twice), Obama- Romney. Such matchups only happen occasionally over decades so we’re doomed to repeat our mistakes if we don’t study history, but the evidence is clear and remarkably consistent.

What does this say about the 2020 contest? If you want to beat Trump, get behind someone with clear executive experience and send the legislators back to Congress to support the executive’s programs.

Researcher, author of multiple books including “The Age of Sustainability” about solutions for climate change. Technology, business, economics.

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