Until Barack Obama's election, the conventional wisdom among political professionals was that members of Congress made weak presidential candidates because they had cast too many votes and participated in too many deals. In short, their legislative records would make them easy targets.
Obama, a former senator from Illinois, was the exception to the rule because he won the White House despite the best efforts of his foes to use his voting record against him. But now former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania is running head-long into the traditional problem of the legislator-candidate. He has cast so many votes, made so many compromises, and dealt with so many controversies over his 16 years in the House and Senate that his record presents a target-rich environment for his adversaries.
Santorum was on the defensive during the Republican presidential debate in Arizona this week because of this record. He had difficulty explaining why some of his votes and actions violated his stated conservative principles and policy stands.
Santorum, for example, had trouble explaining why he supported the re-election of Republican Sen. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania even though Specter took moderate or liberal stands on some issues. Santorum said he backed his colleague because he counted on Specter to support conservative justices to the Supreme Court in his role as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Specter later became a Democrat.
At another point, Santorum had difficulty explaining why he voted for President George W. Bush's education legislation known as "No Child Left Behind." "I have to admit, I voted for that," he said. "It was against the principles I believed in, but, you know, when you're part of the team, sometimes you take one for the team, for the leader, and I made a mistake."
When some in the crowd began booing, Santorum added: "You know, politics is a team sport, folks, and sometimes you've got to rally together and do something."
Former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts repeatedly accused Santorum during the debate of being inconsistent and breaking with conservative ideals. On Thursday, Romney kept up this line of attack during a speech in Phoenix. "He talked about this being 'taking one for the team,'" Romney said. "I wonder which team he was taking it for. Our team is the American people, not the insiders in Washington."
Conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh said he "cringed" at Santorum's "team sport" remark because he knew immediately that "Santorum's opponents, both from the left and right, were going to harp on it. Limbaugh said Romney has an edge in the presidential race because he has never cast a vote in Washington. "It's an unenviable position to be in," the radio commentator said of Santorum's service in Congress. "My only point is, Romney has an advantage in that nobody can go at him in that way because he's never been in the federal system. He does not have a voting record."
Before Obama, the last incumbent member of Congress elected to the presidency was Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts in 1960.