Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Is "political experience" necessary for the presidency?

[Disclaimer: I don't take political positions any longer. As a pastor, I prefer to keep my politics to myself because I want to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with everyone without politics getting in the way. But, as someone with a deep interest in history, I do sometimes try to bring an historical perspective to contemporary events.]

Yesterday, USA Today ran an article about Chris Christie's campaign in New Hampshire. The headline said that the New Jersey governor had "kneecapped" fellow Republican presidential aspirant, Donald Trump. (That sounds painful!) In the midst of the article, we read:
Trump, retired surgeon Ben Carson and former Chief Executive Carly Fiorina haven’t been elected officials and have claimed that being a government outsider is an asset.
And what about the value of elective political experience in a president? I briefly evaluated that question back in 2007, just as Hillary Clinton was warning potential Iowa-caucus-goers that her opponent, Barack Obama, was not as experienced as she was. I wrote:
This is a curious argument for Clinton and her campaign to make.

The reason it’s so strange is that it’s so at odds with the facts. Clinton began her first term in the Senate, her first political office, in January, 2001. It’s true that Obama didn’t enter the Senate until January, 2005. But by that time, he had already served ten years in the Illinois legislature, meaning that he has roughly double the experience in elective political office that Clinton has.

The only way that Clinton’s experience argument will resonate with voters is if they think of “experience” in terms of years of public visibility. But it’s precisely Clinton’s years of public visibility that create her greatest problem as a candidate. After all her time in the public spotlight, she’s viewed negatively by a daunting percentage of voters. I personally can’t recall a candidate being nominated by a major political party with as much hard opposition–upwards of 40% in most national polls–as Clinton. Her “experience” then, could be a deficiency in many voters’ eyes.

What’s interesting about the three current front runners for the Democrats in Iowa–Clinton, Obama, and former one-term Senator from North Carolina, John Edwards–is that all of them have thin federal elective resumes. The experience of each appears to pale by comparison to their less popular rivals like Senator Joseph Biden, Senator Christopher Dodd, and Governor Bill Richardson.

Elective political experience, it should be pointed out, isn’t always a great predictor of an excellent presidency. George Washington spent limited time in the Virginia House of Burgesses and the Continental Congress before becoming president. Dwight Eisenhower, though always a “political general,” in the best sense of that term, had never held public office when he became president. They developed the skills necessary for the presidency while becoming two of the country’s three greatest generals. (The third, Ulysses S. Grant, was a disastrous president.)

Nor is federal elective experience or even executive experience of much use in predicting who will perform well in the White House. When he became president in 1861, for example, Abraham Lincoln had served about a decade in the Illinois legislature and one term in the US House, back during the Polk Administration, and had no executive experience. (Obama’s resume in 2007 is almost precisely the same as that of Lincoln’s in 1860.)
On the other hand, some long-time officeholders were disastrous presidents. Franklin Pierce, Warren Harding, Martin Van Buren, and Richard Nixon, among others, are unlikely to have their images chiseled into the sides of mountains.
In 2016, there's also a businessperson with no elective political experience running for the Democratic presidential nomination. His name is Roque "Rocky" De La Fuente, a California car dealer. Mr. De La Fuente hasn't gotten traction. There are legitimate reasons for voters to question his qualifications, as well as those of the three non-pols seeking the GOP nomination. (And to wonder about the qualifications of people on the ballot who have elective political office, by the way.)

But history suggests that simply dismissing the idea of nominating or electing presidents who have never held elective office previously might be a bad idea. There are lots of other places where people learn to be leaders, understand how government works, communicate vision, engage in negotiation, and reach consensus, qualities one wants to see in presidents.

[Again, don't take this as an endorsement for anyone. My top choice for president in 2016, if I could pick anyone, would be Dwight Eisenhower, affectionately known as Ike. Unfortunately, one of our greatest generals and our 34th president is both term limited and, as of 1969, deceased.]





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