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How Do Presidential Campaigns Affect Capitol Hill Agendas?

Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo (D) once observed that “campaigning is poetry. Governing is prose.” Those who try to carry the language of policymaking into a campaign soon learn it does not easily translate to poesy, pleasing to voters’ ears. Just ask former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), who was panned for talking bill-speak in the 1996 presidential campaign and got clobbered by the incumbent (speaking of Bill), who exuded empathy.

[IMGCAP(1)]Much is made of the contrasting rhetoric of the two remaining Democratic presidential contenders — Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), with his oratory of hope and change, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), with her 15-point policy-wonkese. Does that make Clinton the Bob Dole of 2008, and, if so, does that make Obama her husband?

It all makes for lively debates about the relative roles that personality, experience, policy positions and rhetoric play in voters’ choices. Moreover, it raises a legitimate question as to whether current campaign flummery bears any relation to the real challenges of governing.

An early indicator might be the nexus between today’s campaign themes and current activities in Congress. This is especially pertinent because the remaining presidential candidates are all sitting Senators who must return to the chamber periodically to cast votes on important legislation.

The candidates’ Congressional connection gives party leaders on Capitol Hill incentives to make those trips count and to condition the presidential aspirants to the value of retaining close working relationships once in the White House. It also helps ensure that Congressional candidates are on the same page as their parties’ presidential nominees. In short, each return visit serves as a combination of legislative reality check, party unity rally and early orientation for a new governing partnership.

Looked at from that perspective, it’s easier to understand the seemingly erratic course both parties are pursuing in Congress today. Make no mistake: The course is being carefully mapped with a view to the White House (not to mention a solid governing majority in Congress).

One need look no further than Senate Democrats jumping back and forth between Iraq withdrawal legislation and housing mortgage relief last month, or House Republicans alternating between fights to renew the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and to impose a moratorium on Members’ earmarks — all in sync with their national security/anti-pork presumptive nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).

Meanwhile, House and Senate Democrats are gearing up to brand all their major initiatives over the next several months as “stimulus” bills to highlight the sagging economy and President Bush’s resistance to doing more to help beleaguered Americans.

Two past campaigns that come to mind in which Congress and the pre-convention fights for the presidential nomination were intertwined are 1912 and 1960. In 1912, the early Democratic favorites for the presidential nomination were Speaker James Beauchamp (“Champ”) Clark (Mo.) and House Majority Leader Oscar Wilder Underwood (Ala.). Democrats had retaken control of the House in the 1910 elections after 16 years in the minority. Underwood replaced the “Czar Speaker” leadership model with “King Caucus,” which he deftly managed (with Clark’s full support).

As one writer notes of the 62nd Congress (1911-1912), “Meeting behind closed doors to debate and hammer out policy decisions, and then (on a two-thirds vote) binding members to support the measures, the Democrats passed bill after bill in compliance with their progressive 1908 platform.” Many bills died in the Republican-controlled Senate; others, like Underwood’s tariff reductions, fell victim to Republican President William Howard Taft’s vetoes; and a few were enacted into law with the help of progressive Senate Republicans.

Speaker Clark and Majority Leader Underwood significantly enhanced their presidential prospects by championing these progressive measures. Although Clark had a majority of votes in the early balloting at the 1912 Democratic convention in Baltimore, two-thirds were needed for the nomination. New Jersey Gov. Woodrow Wilson eventually won the nomination on the 46th ballot (with the support of Underwood’s delegates). The earlier work of the 62nd Congress helped shape Wilson’s “New Freedom” progressive platform, and, with Underwood’s help as his House legislative lieutenant, gave him a running start at early enactment of his programs.

In 1960, the Democratic field of presidential candidates included Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson (Texas), Sen. John F. Kennedy (Mass.) and Sen. Stuart Symington (Mo.). As chairman of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Preparedness (and then as self-appointed chairman of the Select Committee on Space), Johnson exposed America’s lag in missile development following the 1957 Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite. Symington flogged the same themes as a prominent member of the Armed Services Committee (and former secretary of the Air Force).

Although Johnson and Symington lost the nomination to Kennedy, the “missile gap” became a principal issue Kennedy used against Vice President Richard Nixon in the general election campaign. Nixon could not disclose classified information in rebuttal, but the gap mysteriously disappeared shortly after Kennedy’s election. Johnson got the vice presidency as a consolation prize (plus chairmanship of the revived national Space Council and placement of the manned spaceflight center in Houston).

Presidential candidates are warned by handlers not to get bogged down in detailed policy plans that invite opponents’ barbs and voter stupefaction. But Congress provides plenty of fodder for the campaign trail and reminds candidates they have a real policy world to deal with once elected.

One thing campaigns can’t expose
is how the winner
will work with Congress
to translate poetry back to prose.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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