Who says you need congressional experience to run for president?

Posted at 9:30 AM, Apr 13, 2015
and last updated 2015-04-13 10:34:23-04

Barack Obama has taught Republicans a lesson. Members of the party may have mocked him for running for president five minutes after entering the Senate, but now several have followed his lead.

Marco Rubio is announcing his candidacy for president on Monday, making him the third freshman GOP senator to do so (following Ted Cruz and Rand Paul).

There's an old joke that every senator looks in the mirror and sees a potential president, but these days it's true for even the least experienced members.

As historian Jeff Shesol points out, none of the most likely GOP nominees, save Jeb Bush, had any sort of stature or even presence on the national stage prior to 2010.

"The Senate is increasingly a stepping stone," says David Yepsen, who runs a public policy institute at Southern Illinois University.

With so little happening in Washington, politicians now make their national reputations less through diligent effort at legislation than finding some way of breaking through on social media or traditional channels.

"Modern technology has made it easier to achieve voter recognition quickly," says presidential scholar George Edwards of Texas A&M University. "Similarly, fundraising has changed, making it more feasible to fund a presidential campaign with little national experience."

Someone like Cruz, elected to the Senate in 2012, no longer must spend years toiling to build up a fundraising network. A quartet of super PACs backing Cruz claimed to have raised $31 million in less than a week.

"In 1960, people would have mocked a one-term senator from either party who announced for president," says political historian Lewis Gould. Even young John Kennedy had been in Congress for 14 years by 1960.

If it's become possible to bypass the long stint in Washington, there's precious little upside to attaining one in the first place. Senators who cast thousands of votes can create a John Kerry problem for themselves -- that is, they may indeed have voted for something before they voted against it.

And, given the striking disdain in which Congress is held, entrenched politicians are at risk of being seen as part of the problem, as opposed to presenting a plausible fresh face that can change the culture in D.C.

"With the dysfunction and the distaste that people have for what goes on in Washington," says Dave Carney, a GOP consultant based in New Hampshire, "the longer you're there, the harder it is to wash the stink off."

Former Missouri Sen. James Talent, an adviser to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's presidential bid, was openly dismissive of the need for a long resume in an interview last week with Bloomberg View, arguing that the foreign policy records achieved by Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were nothing to brag about.

"The fact that you have had experience isn't a plus if that experience is a negative," Talent said.

No one wants to turn the Oval Office into an apprentice position. Most of the current candidates for president aren’t coming from nowhere. Many had substantial political careers before winning their first statewide posts. Rubio, for instance, served as speaker of the Florida House before his election to the Senate.

And it's true Americans have had varying degrees of luck picking presidents either at the end of long and celebrated careers or as virtual newcomers. Abraham Lincoln seemed to do all right after a single term in the House.

If there's another Bush-Clinton grudge match next year, that would mean both parties decided it would be best to nominate candidates with some mileage on them. But it seems for most of the presidential field, it no longer makes much sense to hold off running until the end of a decades-spanning career.

"Being in Congress for a long time is really not a pathway to the White House," Carney said. "I just don't see it happening in the near future."

[Also by Alan Greenblatt: The changing role of political outliers]

Want to keep up with all the latest DecodeDC stories and podcasts? Sign up for our weekly newsletter at