Does experience count for selection to public office? It does for most government positions, from an appointee to the federal judiciary to the city manager of a small town. But when it comes to choosing a president of the United States whose awesome responsibilities include commanding 2.5 million active and reserve troops, overseeing a budget approaching four trillion dollars, and being trusted with the nuclear code, there is evidence prior political experience may be a liability.
Sixteen Republicans were originally considered serious candidates for the American presidency for the 2016 election. That number has since been reduced to one, Donald Trump, in a winnowing process running generally in reverse order of political background.
Even before the first test vote at the Iowa Caucus, five Republican candidates dropped out of the race for lack of support — not lack of experience. Those early departees included Rick Perry, 15-year Governor of Texas; Lindsey Graham in his 13th year representing South Carolina in the U.S. Senate; George Pataki, 11-year Governor of New York; Bobby Jindal, 8-year Governor of Louisiana; and Scott Walker, in his fifth year as Governor of Wisconsin.
During the three weeks following the February 1 Iowa Caucus, an additional number of Republican contenders withdrew from the presidential campaign. Among them were two with experience as U.S. senators, Rand Paul and Rick Santorum, and four former or current governors, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Jim Gilmore of Virginia, Chris Christie of New Jersey, and Jeb Bush of Florida, the two-term former Governor of Florida and presumed early front-runner for the Republican nomination.
Among the five remaining candidates at that time, John Kasich is the incumbent Governor of Ohio and Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are junior senators from Florida and Texas respectively. Of the other two, Ben Carson is a physician and Donald Trump a businessman. Neither has served in political office, elective or otherwise.
During the following primaries and caucuses, John Kasich, the Republican candidate with by far the most political experience, won only his home state of Ohio. Donald Trump, with no political background, won 36.
When President Barak Obama, then a junior senator from Illinois with less than three years in Congress, considered running for president in 2008, he sought the advice of Tom Daschle, the long-time Democratic Party leader in the Senate who had represented South Dakota in Congress for 18 years. Daschle, who lost his Senate seat in the 2004 election largely because of his skepticism over the Iraq War and positions on gay marriage and abortion issues, told Obama “his lack of Washington experience was one of his greatest assets.” Daschle added, “The longer (you’re) in Washington … the longer (you’re) going to be explaining votes, actions, statements, and positions.” Of course, the rest is history.
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So why a seeming drift away from presidential candidates with extensive elective office experience? Among the several likely reasons are an emphasis on negative campaigns and character assassination, low public opinion of politicians (only 16% of the public approved of the job Congress is doing in the latest Gallup Poll), candidates running against the institutions they seek to represent saying they will “clean up the mess in Washington,” radio and television commentators who make a living pontificating about the shortcomings of political figures whose policy positions they oppose, public media that allows rumors and half-truths about candidates to be spread to millions, and, as stated by former Senator Daschle, long periods of time in office that provide a lengthy track record ripe for attack.
Is previous political experience important for producing successful presidential administrations? Poll after poll of experts has concluded that our three “great” presidents were Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt, each of whom had significant prior political experience beginning with elective office in their 20’s.
Washington served in the Virginia House of Burgesses for 15 years and as president of the Constitutional Convention before becoming president. Lincoln held a seat in the Illinois House of Representatives for eight years and in the U.S. House of Representatives for one term before moving into the White House. Franklin Roosevelt’s pre-presidential experience included service as a senator in the New York legislature and governor of that state.
Only three presidents in the modern era starting in 1900 have gained office with no prior elective office experience: William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, and Dwight Eisenhower. All three, however, had experience at the top levels of government, Taft and Hoover as cabinet officers and Eisenhower as the Army chief of staff.
The success of their administrations varied. Hoover’s is ranked in the bottom quartile of our 44 presidents, Taft’s near the middle, and Eisenhower’s in the top quartile, in the eighth or ninth position.
So what does the foregoing portend for the 2016 presidential election with two presumptive nominees whose resumés for public service are so vastly different? On one side is Donald Trump with no political experience, and on the other Hillary Clinton with the most extensive political background in presidential election history. Over the past 37 years she has served as First Lady of Arkansas with a major role on education policy, First Lady of the United States with a major role on health issues, U.S. Senator for New York, and Secretary of State during the Obama administration.
It does seem previous political experience has helped produce successful administrations, particularly with domestic issues where working with Congress is essential. But does it help in getting elected in an era of suspicion of those with a political record? The November presidential election will provide additional input on that important question.
• Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who now lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org