Wednesday, January 09, 2008

U.S. presidential candidates do NOT have to have "experience"

(I wrote this in December 2006 for an e-mail list. Because the subject of "candidate experience" keeps coming up, I decided to post it here.)

It's a common misconception that foreign-policy experience is a requirement for the presidency. And yeah, people like Dole throw that at people like Clinton, but it never works. Not any more, anyway.

The short story is that, between Buchanan (elected 1856) and Truman (elected 1948), foreign-policy experience was nearly irrelevant to each president's first campaign. So we shouldn't be surprised that it became much less important again from the late 1970s onward.

Look at the last couple dozen presidents, and omit anyone who succeeded to the presidency before running for the job. (I'm not sure we can draw any conclusions from presidencies before or resulting from the Civil War, so I've left off Lincoln, Johnson, and Grant.)

  • Hayes: governor of Ohio
  • Garfield: representative
  • [[Arthur]]
  • Cleveland: mayor of Buffalo, governor of New York
  • Harrison: senator
  • McKinley: representative, governor of Ohio
  • [[T. Roosevelt]]
  • Taft: federal judge, cabinet member (War)
  • Wilson: president of Princeton, governor of New Jersey
  • Harding: lt. gov. of Ohio, senator
  • Coolidge: governor of Massachusetts
  • Hoover: businessman, cabinet member (Commerce)
  • F. Roosevelt: cabinet member (Navy), governor of New York
  • [[Truman]]
  • Eisenhower: general, president of Columbia
  • Kennedy: representative, senator
  • [[Johnson]]
  • Nixon: representative, senator, VP
  • [[Ford]]
  • Carter: governor of Georgia
  • Reagan: governor of California
  • Bush Sr: representative, ambassador, VP
  • Clinton: governor of Arkansas
  • Bush Jr: governor of Texas

Let's leave out time in the military*. Then let's say that serving in the Senate counts as foreign-affairs time. From Buchanan to Hoover, foreign-affairs experience was a rare thing: Johnson, Harrison, and Harding in the senate, Taft briefly Secretary of War.

The isolationism that followed WWI faded some with the prosperity of the late 1920s, helping Hoover; he had huge international credentials (as a businessman and business diplomat). But it came back when times went bad again: FDR won because of his domestic agenda, and even in small part because people thought he would avoid foreign entanglements.

Then, everyone from Truman to Nixon, plus "Reagan III", was unassailable as far as experience in international relations. But Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush Jr have returned us to our previous pattern.

I think WWII and the Cold War deflected Americans from electing governors, but I think that that trend is over. We're back to not electing anyone with any international chops.

* It used to be that everyone had a service record. Yeah, TR had San Juan Hill, and JFK had PT-109. But Ike's is the only military experience that really made a difference in an election as policymaking or international relations. We also often hear people moaning about how recent politicians don't have any military experience. But once the Civil War veterans grew old, we had five presidents, from Taft to Hoover, who had not served on active duty. This is another way that I think the electorate is changing, though on this one it's too soon to tell if it'll stick.

For a mainstream-press take on the history of "not enough experience", see this article.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008


What fits your busy schedule better, exercising one hour a day or being dead 24 hours a day?