Showhorses vs. workhorses: What makes an effective US senator?

Retiring U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer.
Retiring U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer.

Tonight’s U.S. Senate debate in Los Angeles will be the last chance to see California Attorney General Kamala Harris and Orange County congresswoman Loretta Sanchez face off against each other before the election. It might help voters decide which of these two Democrats is best suited to replace retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer.

And that begs the question: What does it take to be a good U.S. senator anyway?

We put that question to a few of the most senior members of the U.S. Senate.

“Work first for the country,” says Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy.

“Somebody who’s willing to work their guts out, but who really does weigh the issues with everything they have and who stands up for their beliefs, even when the going gets really rough,” says seven-term Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch from Utah.

Leahy and Hatch are the longest-serving senators in their respective parties.

And Maryland’s Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who, like Boxer, is retiring after this year, offers this when asked what it takes to be effective: “Show up, stand up and never shut up.”

In Washington, D.C., politicians often fall into one of two categories: workhorse or showhorse. The workhorses get the job done, with or without a lot of media attention. They dig into the details of policy and legislation. They do the heavy lifting.

As for showhorses, you don’t want to get between them and a TV camera, or you could risk bodily harm.

But here’s the thing. There’s a place for both types of senator, those who use their media savvy to draw attention to issues and those who just get stuff done. And often, the best senators are a little of both.


“The Senate was traditionally the saucer that was supposed to cool the cup,” says Marc Sandalow, associate academic director of the University of California Washington Center.

“It was supposed to be the reasoned party elders who would come together and cool the feelings of the masses,” meaning the House of Representatives, he says.

Sandalow adds that while the Senate was supposed to be the more staid institution, recently it’s become more like the House, with firebrand members like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who are willing to attack fellow senators in the name of ideological purity.

But that kind of behavior doesn’t make for an effective senator.

“It’s annoying,” Sandalow says. “When you think of the great senators in U.S. history, it’s people who understood the inside game and were willing to do things with their colleagues to move the ball forward.”

Boxer gained national attention in the 1980s as a rabble-rousing member of the House pointing out Pentagon waste — the infamous $600 toilet seat. She followed that up in 1991 during the confirmation hearings for U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. She joined a group of Democratic House members who crashed a Senate luncheon to complain about their treatment of Anita Hill.

She (and Sen. Dianne Feinstein) parlayed anger over the lack of women on the Senate Judiciary Committee that year into the historic 1992 “Year of the Woman” election.

‘It takes a certain ability to hold tough where you know you have to in order to look at yourself in the mirror, but also to find those areas where you can come together.’Barbara Boxer

In the U.S. Senate, Boxer has remained a liberal lion on behalf of issues like combating climate change. But she’s also won over staunch conservatives,  like Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe, chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee and a leading climate change denier.

“I have a genuine, close friendship with Barbara,” Inhofe says. “She and I joke around a lot, probably more on the floor with each other, and that just drives everybody nuts. Each one knows where the other one is and we can love each other anyway.”

Despite polar opposite views on environmental issues, Boxer and Inhofe have managed to work together to pass bipartisan transportation bills and an overhaul of chemical safety standards.

Boxer describes her “when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em” strategy of legislating as an art form. Bottom line: You need to know when to set aside ideological purity to get something done.

“It takes a certain ability to hold tough where you know you have to in order to look at yourself in the mirror, but also to find those areas where you can come together,” Boxer says.

Between Boxer and Feinstein, UC’s Sandalow says Feinstein is more in the traditional style of a senator — less vitriol and more behind-the-scenes consensus building.

Boxer, on the other hand, “is more of a flamethrower” Sandalow says, recalling her attacks on fellow Sen. Robert Packwood (R-Oregon) after he was accused of sexual harassment. Packwood eventually resigned.

In the end, voters may not care about any of these things. They often decide  based on things like which party the candidate belongs to. In this case, both Harris and Sanchez are Democrats so that doesn’t help much, and many Republicans say they won’t vote for either one.

Or it may come down to: Who’s most likable? Or who agrees most with positions on the issues I care about?

In any case, says Sandalow, the outcome will be anomalous.

“In the history of the republic,  there has been a grand total of one African-American elected to the Senate. That’s Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois.  And there have been zero Latinas elected. So, whoever California sends is going to look different from the rest of the group.”

Reporter Matt Laslo contributed to this story.

Series: California Counts

California Counts is a collaboration of KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio to report on the 2016 election. The coverage focuses on major issues and solicits diverse voices on what's important to the future of California.

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