More than six decades ago, I asked Sen. John Kennedy at a college editors’ conference why he felt qualified for the presidency, since his political career was wholly in Congress and lacked managerial or executive experience.
More important than “the nature of one’s experience,” the future president responded, was “one’s understanding of the issues and America’s place in the world.”
As Iowa’s Democrats prepare to cast 2020’s first ballots some six decades later, that seems like a minimal standard in an election where the top candidates’ experience ranges from eight years as mayor of Indiana’s fourth largest city to 44 years in the Senate and vice presidency.
The bad news for Joe Biden, the Democrat with an unprecedented level of elective experience, is that for the last three decades Americans have regularly elected the less experienced presidential candidate, a trend that culminated in 2016 with the election of the least qualified candidate in memory.
The good news is that the resulting level of presidential incompetence is spurring renewed interest in electing a candidate not only able to win but likely to bring the requisite experience to the White House.
Sheila Bair, a Kansas Republican and former federal financial agency head, made a strong case against continued inexperience in a recent op-ed in The Washington Post. Bret Stephens, a conservative New York Times columnist, warned that not all Trump foes have the necessary middle-of-the road appeal to both win and govern effectively.
Bair, a one-time aide to former Senate GOP Leader Bob Dole, later held several top governmental regulatory posts under presidents of both parties.
“Over the past 40 years — about as long as I’ve been of age to vote — the country has seen a downward spiral in the qualifications of the individuals we have elected as president,” she wrote, adding “we arguably hit a new low” with Trump.
“Voters often use their ballots as weapons of punishment,” she explained, noting that a result “is for elections to favor naifs over pros, because the pros have amassed so many years’ worth of activity for the public to get mad at.”
Bair singled out the inexperience of Pete Buttigieg, the 38-year-old former South Bend, Ind., mayor, whose thin resume provides “scant fodder for Trump to exploit in a general election.”
She cited Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren as “two candidates with strong records of public achievement,” notably ignoring Sen. Bernie Sanders of the top Democratic hopefuls.
“Democrats need to decide whether they just want to beat Trump or whether they want a credible candidate who has the vision, commitment and proven skills to truly reform our government,” she concluded.
Stephens rejected the notion that voters would accept any Democrat over Trump. But he warned that a too-liberal candidate like Sanders or Warren might negatively impact the economy and the political balance, adding that, to attract necessary middle-of-the road support, Democrats need to nominate “a sober alternative to a reckless president.”
“What they can’t do is nominate a reckless candidate of their own and insist it’s the only choice,” he added, warning “an assertively left-wing presidency would spark a right-wing backlash that would have all the fear and rage of the left’s Resistance — but none of its restraint.”
Before the last election, author Jonathan Rauch discussed the issue of presidential unpreparedness at length in the Atlantic, noting it’s often said the presidency “is a job for which everyone arrives unprepared” and asking, “But just how unprepared is unprepared enough?”
One problem, that he said former White House speech writer John McConnell first noted, is that, since the early 20th century, “no one gets elected president who needs longer than 14 years to get from his first gubernatorial and senatorial victory to either the presidency or the vice presidency.”
Applied to the 2020 field, this rule would only eliminate Biden, since Sanders and Amy Klobuchar have both been senators for 14 years. At the time Rauch wrote his article, the 2016 campaign was just beginning, and the 14-year rule presciently ruled out both Jeb Bush (18 years) and Hillary Clinton (16 years).
There was a time, Rauch concluded, that the more experienced candidate won the presidency, a trend culminating with the election of George H. W. Bush in 1988, possibly the last truly prepared candidate elected.
Since then, he added, “the candidate with more experience begins consistently losing,” explaining that “as voters have grown angrier with government, they have become more receptive to outsiders.”
Rauch noted that, in 1962, political scientist James Q. Wilson presciently predicted “the ascendancy of amateurism” in politics “would cause social friction and governmental gridlock.”
Here’s hoping that voters will decide the last thing needed in 2020 is more of the same.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News and a frequent contributor. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org