At a 1959 news conference for college journalists, I asked Sen. John F. Kennedy a question that has recurred in many subsequent elections: Given the fact that you only have legislative experience and none as an executive, what makes you qualified to be President?
His answer: It’s not the nature of your experience that matters, but your understanding of the issues and America’s place in the world.
That sounded reasonable, but, as Kennedy and others later showed, it’s not that simple. Recent presidents have often found a substantial gap between what they envisioned as a candidate and the reality they confronted in office.
Take Barack Obama. His campaign claim — that he as an outsider could bring meaningful change better than insider Hillary Clinton — was never realistic, though many voters believed it. Nevertheless, he can boast substantial achievements, a tribute to his determination, the loyalty of fellow Democrats, the dire situation he inherited and knee-jerk opposition that prompted him to stretch his executive powers. Time will tell if successes such as Obamacare and the Iran nuclear deal survive and prosper.
Many critics blamed inexperience for his frequent difficulties, and GOP hopefuls often tout their longer resumes as qualifications.
Still, how various backgrounds prepare candidates for the presidency remains an open question, exemplified this year by the fact that three leading Republican contenders — Donald Trump, Dr. Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina — have never held any elected office.
Half of this year’s candidates have been governors, like four of the six most recent presidents. But history reveals enormous differences in gubernatorial preparedness.
Ronald Reagan, who led a contentious, two-party state, was far better-equipped for Washington than governors from one-party capitals, such as Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. His negotiating experience as president of the Screen Actors Guild may have prepared Reagan to deal with Soviet leaders.
Of the current crop, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former New York Gov. George Pataki come from politically competitive states. Walker and Christie have governed as strong partisans, and their job approval has suffered. Kasich moderated his approach after an initial setback and has thrived. Pataki seems a non-factor.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush thrived as governor of solidly Republican Florida, though not recently, and brings the cachet — and baggage — of his family’s prior presidential and foreign policy experience. Martin O'Malley was the Democratic governor of a Democratic state and, like former Govs. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Rick Perry of Texas, is fighting to be relevant.
Obama was the first senator elected since Kennedy, but many others sought the presidency, reflecting Washington’s increased prominence in an era when international issues dominate. Lawmakers still face the underlying questions Kennedy faced in selling their qualifications, a potential issue for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and, possibly, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.
Rubio touts four years as speaker of the Florida House. Clinton added four years as secretary of state to eight in the Senate, a combination of legislative and executive experience rivaled only by Kasich and long shots Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island.
GOP voters fed up with Washington have so far embraced the fact that Trump, Carson and Fiorina never held public office. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower was the last non-politician to win the White House, but he had learned about government, management and diplomacy during World War II.
Trump has a valid claim as a successful manager, a tougher hurdle for ousted Hewlett-Packard CEO Fiorina or neurosurgeon Carson, who ran a hospital department. The billionaire developer makes running the federal government sound easier than building Trump Towers.
“I’m the most successful person that’s ever run for the presidency,” he says, deriding politicians as “all talk and no action” and vowing to be “the greatest jobs president that God ever created.”
His sweeping rhetoric ignores the question whether someone without governmental experience can succeed at the increasingly complex, multi-faceted job of president. Ronald Reagan cultivated a non-political image, but learned to govern before coming to Washington.
Election of Trump — or Fiorina, or Carson — would be an experiment quite unlike any Americans have tried in modern times. Hopefully, Republicans will consider that more seriously in voting than in responding to pollsters.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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