The first two decades of the twenty-first century have seen a dramatic shift in the caliber of candidates vying for the nation’s highest office. Rather than qualifications and experience improving with time, long-term political exposure is seen as a liability in today’s presidential races. Some voters say they want “new blood” untarnished by the political process with its trade-offs and compromises. And it seems they are getting what they want.
Both political parties opened the door to the current rush of underqualified aspirants. The Democrats selected a hitherto unknown one-term senator in 2008; the Republicans a businessman with no political history before 2016. Heading into 2020, we have, in the words of the late sportscaster, a “veritable plethora” of presidential wannabes. A mere one or two percent in the polls will get you a seat at the table in 2019.
In previous centuries, one could look at the incumbent’s biography and detect a pattern of preparation that suggested a path to the White House. It didn’t always guarantee success, but it at least posed the possibility. Top-level military leadership distinguished a few candidates, from Washington to Eisenhower. That high level of leadership gradually diminished to military experience of any kind, to none.
Office-holding was another pathway to the presidency. Being a governor or legislator provided the experience and public forum for many a candidate. However more than one term was necessary to establish credibility. No longer. Age was another seasoning factor, as candidates as young as their forties were limited to Teddy Roosevelt and John Kennedy, that is, until more recently.
Political neophytes rarely aspired to the highest office. Though Secretary of Commerce under two presidents, Herbert Hoover was primarily regarded as an apolitical businessman and mining engineer, and is forever linked to the 1929 stock market crash and Great Depression. Maybe if he had had psychic abilities like one of today’s candidates, the country might have fared better.
In this century much has changed and continues to change about how presidents are prepared to be leader of the Free World. With a couple of exceptions, experience no longer extends back to the 20th century. That’s certainly true of the current President, and mostly true of 18 of 20 announced Democratic candidates. Some of them have less than 10 to 15 years of what could be considered job-related experience. In another field, they might have trouble making the first cut for an executive job.
When real executive experience is measured, the field narrows considerably. Candidates in congressional office may have managed nothing larger than a legislative staff. Governors may still be in their first term. Some aspirants have cabinet experience, but not in a first-tier cabinet seat. In many cases, they are first-timers in the crucible of leadership, leading only a campaign. They are finding the bright lights of media-guided public scrutiny to be unforgiving.
Current presidential criteria for success include almost winning (i.e., losing) a Senate seat, considered a plus by one candidate. Foreign policy experience is not touted much, since there is little or none to be had. Envisioning some candidates as “commander-in-chief” takes some imagination.
Charisma is big. Social media presence is bigger. And the ability to illustrate a point with a poignant personal story is always helpful in deflecting a tough question. A quick wit serves the candidate well in interminable debates. Favorable ratings by pundits are prized. Physical stamina is a prerequisite, so the candidate can get visibility in four cities (four news markets) in one day when necessary.
The college education ticket is still punched; there are no high-school dropouts in the field. However, neither do we hear quoted the words of great minds of the past, brought to bear on present problems. Candidates live in today, without much reference to historical context or precedent.
One final qualification has arisen quite clearly: the ability and willingness to trash your opponent. The incumbent’s belittling of anyone on any given day is well-known. The Democratic competition has taken note and is unceasingly vitriolic as it heaps abuse on the person and office of the President.
Such is not without precedent. Grover Cleveland was accused of fathering an illegitimate child, as fatherless kids were termed in his era. Opponents chanted “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha.” From devising clever names for opponents to referring to the President of the United States as a liar, predator, and white supremacist, nastiness increasingly marks the resume of those who would lead our country. Don’t expect either to change upon their election.
As one reviews the quantity and quality of candidates in this race, it is not difficult to imagine that more than one woke up one morning and thought “Why don’t I run for President? I have as good a chance as so-and-so. I only need half the vote and few key states. I’ll write a book and go on late-night television. How hard can this be? Look who’s gotten elected President lately? The bar is not very high. Why NOT me?”
Somewhere there is someone who is not yet a candidate. Someone who rejects self-promotion and egotism. Someone quietly doing an important job and doing it well. Qualified, they must be persuaded to run, for they view presidential candidacy as a patriotic duty and a sacred trust. They may not be photogenic or charismatic. They don’t care much about opinion polls. They are genuine, three-dimensional people, not clones or cardboard cutouts.
Are there really people of genuine presidential timber? If there are, can they be persuaded to enter a gladiatorial arena no less savage than that of ancient Rome? Will a champion yet emerge? An American messiah? One can dream.
Gene G. Blair has been a resident of Huntsville for 39 years. He is retired from the Criminal Justice Center at SHSU, and is also retired from the U.S. Army. He is a director on the executive board of CASA of Walker, San Jacinto, and Trinity counties.