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Harlan Ullman: Never, ever elect a one-term senator as president

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist   |   Feb. 29, 2016 at 6:00 AM
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WASHINGTON, Feb. 29 (UPI) -- If Einstein could have written a general theory of political relativity for American politics, the first rule might have been never, ever elect a first-term senator as president.

Since the end of World War II, the nation has elected three first-term senators to the presidency. Today, four current or former senators are running for that office. Two are first-termers; the other two did not serve a full two terms.

But history first.

The first-term senators elected president were Jack Kennedy in 1960; Richard Nixon in 1968; and Barack Obama in 2008. And each failed in different ways. Kennedy ran for office well to the right of President (and General of the Army) Dwight Eisenhower and his vice president, Richard Nixon. Kennedy invented a nonexistent "missile gap," asserting the Soviet Union was far ahead of the United States in nuclear armaments.

A huge missile gap existed, but it was in America's favor. Ironically, Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev had determined Eisenhower's strategy of nuclear deterrence did not have to be countered on a one-to-one basis and by late 1959 began reducing Soviet defense spending, shifting rubles to domestic needs.

Upon assuming office in January 1961, Kennedy requested and received three immediate budget raises from Congress that boosted defense spending dramatically for both nuclear and conventional forces. These increases and the failed Bay of Pigs operation in April 1961 to oust Cuba's Fidel Castro were powerful arguments for the conservative and military hardliners in Moscow to force Khrushchev to reverse course in cutting defense.

Khrushchev persisted. He concluded that by stationing short-range nuclear missiles in Cuba, Russia would inexpensively outflank the U.S. strategic advantage. Khrushchev reasoned that with U.S. nuclear Jupiter missiles in Turkey so close to the Soviet Union, once Russian nuclear rockets were installed in Cuba, Kennedy must accept this fait accompli. Then pouring billions of rubles into defense would be unnecessary.

The logic failed. The subsequent Cuban missile crisis and naval blockade forced Khrushchev to back down, leading to his removal two years later and an arms race that probably extended the Cold War by years. Ironically, JFK's initial order in 1961 to remove Jupiter missiles from Turkey went unheeded.

Kennedy also rashly vowed to "pay any price and bear any burden" to defend freedom. Vietnam became the test case. Whether Kennedy would have fallen into that quagmire had he lived is not relevant. Lyndon Johnson believed he was following Kennedy's intent. That war consumed 58,000 American and countless Vietnamese lives. It was, pointedly, the first war America lost.

After serving in the House, Nixon spent only two years in the Senate before becoming vice president in 1953. In many ways, Nixon was a brilliant president. His opening to China, relations with the Soviet Union and many domestic achievements, including creating the EPA were extraordinary. Yet, Watergate destroyed Nixon and his legacy.

Barack Obama was elected after serving only four years in the Senate. "Hope and change" were merely slogans. And, like Kennedy, sound bites and campaign promises became surrogates for policy. Admittedly, Obama was dealt the worst hand of any president entering office since FDR. He has played that hand badly.

Promising to end the Iraq war, Obama was so anxious to withdraw that his administration never used whatever leverage it had to coerce or persuade Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki to reach a rapprochement with the Sunni minority. The decision to leave Afghanistan by a date certain was foolhardy. Those failures have exacerbated the crises in both countries.

Furthermore, the strategic pivot to Asia was a PR nightmare, offending China and frightening friends. Setting "red lines" and demanding that Syria's Bashar al Assad must go were likewise colossal mistakes. And the Affordable Healthcare Act could not have been implemented more incompetently.

Today, four of the presidential candidates are or were senators. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are first-termers. Twice elected, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have spent eight and 10 years respectively in the Senate. Obviously, each of the candidates has experience beyond the Senate. Yet, so did the other first-termers occupying the Oval Office.

The alternative -- if Ohio Gov. John Kasich, with 18 years in the House, is not the Republican nominee -- is Donald Trump. Trump has zero elective and political experience. And Kasich is probably not electable.

History may not repeat. But if Mark Twain is correct and history rhymes, the next four years should not fill Americans with optimism. How America arrived at this juncture is less important than what will happen beyond 2017. With those Americans retaining a sense of humor, the only answer is the notion that living well is the best revenge. _________________________________________________________________

Harlan Ullman is UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist. He is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and at Business Executives for National Security and chairs two private companies. His latest book is "A Handful of Bullets: How the Murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Still Menaces the Peace."

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