Dave Weigel makes an interesting aside in the midst of a piece about Joe Biden’s debate style that I enthusiastically recommend. He says that after the 1988 presidential campaign fiasco, “Biden quit the race and followed the pattern of senators who’d had their dreams crushed in front of national TV audiences. He focused on the work.”

That’s exactly the kind of claim that goes right to that part of my brain that spent the better part of the 1980s and 1990s reading and rereading Bill James. Is there such a pattern? How common is it?

Well, the problem is that it’s a little hard to do this one, at least for a quick blog post. But I’ll take a shot. And guess what? The generalization holds a whole lot better than I would have expected.

1972: Ed Muskie returned to the Senate, and was Budget Committee Chair for a long stretch, and then briefly Secretary of State. I get the sense that his biggest legislative accomplishments were before his presidential campaign, but as far as I know his reputation as a serious Senator was basically the same before and after. Tom Eagleton had an excellent reputation as a serious Senator in the mid-1980s. George McGovern had eight more years in the Senate; I don’t think he was particularly productive, but I think it’s probably true that he “focused on the work.”

1976: Does anyone really fit? Some Senators lost in the race for the Democratic nomination, but none really came all that close to winning. Bob Dole become one of the most successful Senators of his era. Scoop Jackson ran in 1972 and 1976, and died a Senator in 1983.

1980: Ted Kennedy certainly counts as perhaps the greatest example of someone who had originally sought the presidency but, after (repeated) humiliations on the national stage, wound up focusing on becoming an excellent Senator. Howard Baker and Bob Dole fit, too.

1984: Gary Hart is the counterexample, although the humiliation part doesn’t come until his 1988 run. But he had already left the Senate, choosing not to run in 1986. I’m guessing that John Glenn was a more serious Senator after 1984 than before.

1988: Beyond Biden, there’s Al Gore. You know about him.

1992: No one really humiliated. Bob Kerrey was re-elected once and then retired; Tom Harkin is still in the Senate.

1996: Bob Dole, of course, resigned from the Senate during his run. Phil Gramm, like Kerrey, was re-elected once and then retired. The others were Lugar and Specter.

2000: Again, no real dream-crushing. John McCain you know about.

2004: John Kerry has probably been a better Senator since then, right? Joe Lieberman continued as before, except even more sanctimonious. Re-elected once, then retired. John Edwards was on the Gary Hart path, except that his term was up in ’04.

2008: Well, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, again, you know about. There was also Chris Dodd, who had a very busy two years in the Senate and then retired. If you want to count Evan Bayh, who got out very early in the cycle — he’s a clear counterexample.

(Note: I didn’t include everyone, especially those with very brief campaigns, in an effort to keep this reasonably short.)

During the entire modern era, there are only a couple of Senators who ran for president without continuing on in the Senate long enough to get re-elected — excluding, of course, those such as Clinton who were snatched out of there. Quite a few of them, including several whose presidential runs were embarrassments, wound up taking their work in the Senate more seriously than they previously had.  I would have thought that there were other examples similar to Gary Hart, who found the Senate too small after being on the big stage, or similar to Evan Bayh, who seems to decided that if he couldn’t be president he’d just give up on politics. Or even Edwards, who was up for re-election and chose to go presidency-or-bust, something he shared with Fred Harris in 1972, but that’s about it. Overall, it turns out that those are the exceptions; what Biden did in 1988 really does seem to be the more normal approach.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.