If you’ve ever wondered why the Democratic congressional leadership is so old, and why the party is led by so many figures whose biggest distinguishing characteristic is that they’ve been in Washington for a long time, this passage from Chuck Todd’s The Stranger illuminates a lot:
Initially [Hillary] Clinton was skeptical of taking the job in Foggy Bottom. She would be working for someone else, executing his policies, and leaving behind a Senate career that still had promise. There were moments when Clinton saw herself as the logical successor to Ted Kennedy, the next liberal lion of the Senate. But Obama’s appeal to her sense of patriotism was a strong pitch. And behind the scenes, Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic leader, was making another thing clear: the Senate still worked on a hierarchical system, and a junior senator with little more than a single term under her belt shouldn’t be comparing herself to Ted Kennedy just yet. Reid had no interest in seeing Hillary become the biggest star in his Senate. Such were the ironies of Washington: it was easier for Barack Obama to become president than to become leader of the Senate, and easier for Hillary Clinton to enter the cabinet than to somehow take over running the Senate, or even step into leadership.
So Clinton would have returned to the Senate much as she’d left it — as a senator who made headlines but who had little real power in the committee system, not exactly a backbencher but somewhere in the middle, and certainly not someone who had any real chance of climbing the leadership ladder, especially not when Reid and Clinton’s senior colleague, New York’s Chuck Schumer, were still around. Without a piece of actual Senate real estate to run, she would be relegated to become either a White House Senate ally or one of its chief critics in order to fulfill her own ambitions. Leaving the Senate started to have a lot more appeal.
The Democratic Senate leadership in January 2009: Majority Leader Harry Reid, Assistant Majority Leader/Majority Whip Richard Durbin, Conference Vice Chairman Chuck Schumer, Policy Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan, and Chief Deputy Whip Barbara Boxer.
Starting in the next Congress, the leaders of the Democrats in the Senate will be . . . Minority Leader Harry Reid, Assistant Minority Leader/Minority Whip Richard Durbin, Conference Vice Chairman Chuck Schumer, who will also be the policy committee chairman, and Chief Deputy Whip Barbara Boxer.
Sure, the Senate has operated on seniority for a long time, and it’s easiest to build relationships with the rest of the caucus if you’ve served a long while. But with leadership posts in the Senate so dominated by the greybeards, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to see first-term senators running for president. This cycle we may get Senator Rand Paul, Senator Marco Rubio, Senator Ted Cruz, and perhaps Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Why do so many senators look in the mirror and see a potential president staring back at them? Because they can’t see a potential majority leader in the reflection.