Guest Columnist

Experience should be a focus for Democrats

Why focus on the Democrats’ presidential primary? Because of the 13 elected presidents since 1932 (Gerald Ford was appointed) only two who wanted re-election didn’t win (Presidents Jimmy Carter and H.W. Bush). This history, plus President Donald Trump’s loyal base, suggest the 2020 election is Trump’s to lose.

Democrats want a winning candidate. They also should want a competent president.

There’s a path to becoming British prime minister. There’s none for our presidency: 17 presidents were former governors, 14 vice presidents, eight Cabinet secretaries, three came directly from the Senate, for five it was their first election. None had to meet education or experience requirements, take training programs or read manuals.

We want character, compassion, compromise, courage and curiosity in our presidents — along with intelligence, honesty, decency and other commendable personal qualities. Competence alone isn’t enough. No candidate will have the wide range of experience a president needs, but the more the better.

In the 2008 Democratic primary, Bill Richardson won the experience challenge. He understood legislative process from 15 years in the U.S. House, state government from two terms as governor, and federal as former secretary of energy. He had administered large organizations and had the international perspective of a former U.N. ambassador credited with successful hostage negotiations.

Richardson used this in a comedic political spot. A man interviewing him for a job recites Richardson’s resume and then asks him, “So, what makes you think you can be president?”

George H.W. Bush had a comparable record: CIA director, House member, U.N. ambassador, chief liaison to China, Republican National Committee chairman, and eight years as vice president.

What’s the range of helpful experience?

Administering 8 million federal, military, and contract employees requires unique skills. Having been a governor, big city mayor, or Cabinet officer helps.


There are “political people” — those who have run for office, managed campaigns, served constituents, and know the norms. It helps to have been one.

Presidents influence many government institutions: school boards, mayors and city councils, county supervisors, governors, state legislatures, Congress, Cabinet departments, the judiciary and the military. Has your candidate had experience within those institutions?

Presidents needn’t be former constitutional law professors, but they need to understand and support, emotionally as well as intellectually, the Constitution’s limitations on, as well as powers of, the presidency.

Having been a U.S. senator is not enough. But understanding the executive-legislative relationship is essential, and it helps to have been a legislator somewhere.

There are 4,000 presidential appointments. Some candidates could list 4,000 qualified appointees from memory. Others struggle to name a couple dozen. Where will your candidate look? How will they choose?

A range of life experiences and acquaintances from high school dropouts to Ph.D. professors; multiple ethnicities and religions; labor leaders and CEOs; impoverished and wealthy; urban and rural; agricultural, manufacturing and retail employees, makes for a more competent and compassionate president.

The president must be an international player and might become a global leader. Having worked with and for organizations such as the United Nations, World Bank, NATO, or as an ambassador, provides insight. Failing that, education, multiple languages, and world travel can help a president frame questions and understand the answers.

While we’re enjoying the excitement of evaluating our stampede of wannabe candidates let’s give at least some thought to their qualifications as wannabe presidents. Measure them against this list, and then ask them, “What makes you think you can be president?”


• Nicholas Johnson is a native Iowan, a three-time presidential appointee and maintains for his latest book. Comments:

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