Ideally we’d ban them from running for president and repeal the 17th Amendment.
But having been granted the power to directly elect their senators, American voters won’t agree to return it to their state legislatures. And that might be for the best in the age of Trump, when ambitious state politicians may be more willing to kowtow to his whims in hopes of earning his favor than MAGA voters are.
Ambition and how to manage it are the subjects of George Will’s column today. The United States Senate has a problem with grandstanding, he writes, particularly grandstanding by young-ish politicians who clearly view their job as senators as little more than “brand-building” for the job they really want. The Senate has always had its share of members who covet the office as a stepping stone to the presidency but either that share has grown in recent years or it’s become more obnoxious in how low it’s willing to stoop to get attention. Probably the latter, as the proliferation of partisan news outlets and social media has given would-be presidents the ability to grandstand to an audience 24/7/365.
Examples? Look no further than Will’s column of January 6, 2021, identifying Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz as outright seditionists for their role in ringleading the attempt to block certification of the electoral college. Will knows what drove Hawley and Cruz to do that and it wasn’t sincere concern that Biden’s victory had been tainted. It was the perverse incentive each felt to abuse his platform as senator by casting doubt on the election in order to impress populist Republican voters ahead of the 2024 primary.
How do we keep grandstanding seditionists out of the Senate and populate it instead with members who care about legislating — or at least prioritize the country’s interests over their own? Simple, says Will: Bar senators from the presidency. That single constitutional amendment would steer ambitious narcissists like Cruz and Hawley away from the chamber forever.
The federal government’s growth, and the national media’s focus on Washington, has increased the prominence of senators eager for prominence, although it often is the prominence of a ship’s figurehead — decorative, not functional. As president-centric government has waxed, the Senate has waned, becoming increasingly a theater of performative behaviors by senators who are decreasingly interested in legislating, and are increasingly preoccupied with using social media for self-promotion…
The 328 senators of the previous 50 years have illustrated the tyranny of the bell-shaped curve: a few of them dreadful, a few excellent, most mediocre. Although Josh Hawley, Missouri’s freshman Republican, might not be worse than all the other 327, he exemplifies the worst about would-be presidents incubated in the Senate. Arriving there in January 2019, he hit the ground running — away from the Senate. Twenty-four months later, he was the principal catalyst of the attempted nullification of the presidential election preceding the one that he hopes will elevate him. Nimbly clambering aboard every passing bandwagon that can carry him to the Fox News greenroom, he treats the Senate as a mere steppingstone for his ascent to an office commensurate with his estimate of his talents.
The constitutional equilibrium of checks and balances depends on a rivalrous relationship between the executive branch and houses of Congress that are mutually jealous of their powers. “The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place,” and government will be controlled by “this policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives” (James Madison, Federalist 51).
Repopulating the Senate with serious legislators might reverse the decades-long trend of executive power growing at the expense of legislative power too, he notes. A senator who cares for his job only as a launching pad to the presidency has no reason to assert his branch’s authority at the president’s expense. He has a reason *not* to do so, since he hopes to wield expansive executive power himself someday.
There’s a question Will doesn’t consider, though. Where do the Cruzes and Hawleys of the future go to chase their presidential dreams once they’re barred from doing so in the Senate?
They could run for the House, but there’s a reason House members almost never become presidents. They’re faces in a crowd of 435, unable to make much of a mark unless they become a leader of their caucus. And advancing to leadership takes years. No, the obvious outlet for young pols with their eye on the White House would be to run for governor, a job in which they can stand out, gain executive experience, and do all the culture-war grandstanding they could want to impress Republican voters nationally.
But would Gov. Hawley be an improvement over Sen. Hawley?
Sure, in some ways. If Will is worried about Hawley doing damage in service to his ambition, better to limit the damage to Missouri than have it go national by giving him a perch in the federal legislature. On the other hand, governors wield more power than senators do. Hawley, for all his faults, failed to stop the certification of the election in 2021 and hasn’t managed to pass anything of import in the 15 months since. He’s been checked by the other 99 members of the body. As a governor, he’d be able to do what he likes and might attract more of a national following because of it. Ron DeSantis is a prohibitive favorite to become the GOP nominee right now if Trump doesn’t run in 2024; Hawley, by contrast, typically polls at around zero percent. Which office has been more conducive to national ambitions in their cases, governor or senator?
That is to say, if your chief worry is preventing a President Hawley then maybe we should ignore Will’s idea and let guys like him to continue to run for Senate. It’s unusual in modern times for someone to make the leap directly from the Senate to the White House, after all. The Senate is typically where presidential dreams go to die. But if instead you hope to restore the Senate to its traditional role as a serious legislative body eager to advance its institutional prerogatives at the expense of the presidency — and that’s certainly Will’s hope — then yeah, ban ’em all for running from the top job. That’ll send the grandstanders scurrying away.
Why, if we had done this long ago, it would have spared us eight years of President Barack Obama, a textbook example from the left of what Will is worried about with respect to incentives for young pols in running for Senate nowadays.
One last note. Just because a senator takes a serious interest in legislation and displays no interest in running for president doesn’t mean they’re immune from Hawley-esque behavior. Will’s amendment wouldn’t be a cure-all, not that he’d say otherwise.
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