Opinion: Stuck on the Back Bench? Why Not Run for President

Last House member to win presidency was in 1880 — it was an accident

An engraving of President James A. Garfield’s assassination. Not since Garfield has a sitting House member so much as won an electoral vote in a presidential election. (Engraving from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper)
An engraving of President James A. Garfield’s assassination. Not since Garfield has a sitting House member so much as won an electoral vote in a presidential election. (Engraving from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper)
Posted August 15, 2017 at 5:03am

No sitting House member has won an electoral vote for president since 1880, when Ohio’s James A. Garfield captured the White House — and he didn’t even mean to run for the job.

In fact, the Ohio legislature had just voted to appoint Garfield to a Senate term — for which he would have been seated in March 1881 — when the GOP met in Chicago to pick its nominee for the presidency in the summer of 1880.

Garfield supported Treasury Secretary John Sherman, and didn’t become a candidate for the nomination himself until after a deadlocked convention had seen nearly three dozen ballots cast. Garfield was an accidental nominee and an accidental president.

But history be damned. Several current members of the House have visions of Secret Service details dancing in their heads.

John Delaney, a Democrat from Maryland, has already declared his candidacy. Reps. Adam Schiff of California, Tim Ryan of Ohio and Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii have gained notice from the chattering class.

And Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, the 38-year-old Iraq War vet and aide-de-camp to Gen. David Petraeus, is running for something, even if it’s not president in 2020. Moulton has said publicly that he won’t seek the office in the next election, but Barack Obama said the same thing before he ran in 2008.

Open house

On the surface, it’s silly for House members to run for president. Very few House members are household names — and Delaney, Ryan, Gabbard and Moulton all qualify as obscure in the national political discussion. Ryan is the best known, and that’s because he got some attention when he failed to unseat Nancy Pelosi as House minority leader. Even senators, who start with a statewide base and usually have higher national profiles, have trouble winning the office.

But the successive elections of a first-term senator — the first African-American to hold the highest office in the land — and a political neophyte best known as a reality television star have turned conventional wisdom about the path to the presidency on its head.

Both Obama and Donald Trump benefited from running as outsiders with thin political records for opponents to use against them. It is not inconceivable that a little-known House member could catch fire, win a party’s nomination and then benefit enough from a binary choice for the presidency to wind up in the West Wing.

But it’s almost inconceivable. So why run?

It’s low risk and high reward. What value is there in being a member of the House — particularly a member of the minority party — in the modern Congress? You can’t legislate. The old perks have been outlawed. And America hates you, even if your own constituents dislike you a little bit less than the last person who ran against you. A $174,000 salary isn’t bad, but most House members — accurately or mistakenly — believe they could do better on the outside. If you do poorly enough, you can drop out and run for re-election anyway.

There’s a lot to be gained from a presidential candidacy. Even if you fall on your face, you’ll build a bigger network of donors, travel the country on their dimes to increase your name recognition, get yourself on national television programs and maybe last long enough to merit space on a debate stage. And you can bet there will be a lot more than seven dwarves in Democratic debates when the season gets under way. If you do well enough, the eventual nominee might consider you for a Cabinet post, should he or she win in November.

Consider a detour

Never mind that the House isn’t exactly a hotbed of national leaders. Former governors and current Reps. Charlie Crist and Mark Sanford notwithstanding, most people who have experience running large organizations have little interest in serving in the House. Representing one of 435 districts with a vote just isn’t the same as directing the federal government. That’s one of the reasons voters have generally preferred candidates with serious executive experience for the presidency.

And it explains why House members who are serious about national ambitions have often gone home to run for statewide executive office first. Vice President Mike Pence, once a rising star in the House, left Washington for Indianapolis several years ago. One of his colleagues, Adam Putnam of Florida, went home to run for agriculture secretary and is now, at 43, well-positioned to win the governorship of the Sunshine State — a huge prize in presidential elections, that has grown in strength with its population boom. If he wins, he’ll get mention as a potential presidential candidate in 2024 or 2028.

They made wise choices. If House members really want to be president, they should go out and get some executive experience first. If not, it’s hard to see them convincing voters they should be given the helm of the United States. So, almost by definition, any House member who runs for president isn’t really trying to win. But then again, neither was Garfield.

Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is a co-author of “Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign” and has covered Congress, the White House and elections over the past 16 years.