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.


At Saturday, 19 January, 2008, Anonymous markdlew said...

You don't give Taft nearly enough credit.

For one thing, his stint as Secretary of War was not "brief". At slightly more than four years, it was longer than his term as president. Not only that, but TR used him as a sort of roving ambassador during that period, much more than you'd expect from a Secretary of War. He went on missions to Japan and Panama, among other places, and he was briefly acting governor of Cuba after an uprising there. The other thing you omit is Taft's two and a half years as colonial governor of the Philippines.

Really, you'd be hard-pressed to find any president with more foreign policy experience than Taft. He was certainly the most traveled before the modern era. Most traveled prior to being elected, I mean; plenty of presidents traveled the world during (eg, Wilson) or after (eg, Grant, T Roosevelt) their presidency.

At Sunday, 20 January, 2008, Blogger the RaptorMage said...

Yeah, you're right. I probably have a bias against Taft because he was a corporate Republican from my home state of Ohio. I have relatives who have recently worked for the Taft family businesses, and I think they're still a right-wing disgrace.

At Tuesday, 22 January, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the businesses, or the family members?

At Wednesday, 23 January, 2008, Blogger the RaptorMage said...

YIKE! The businesses!

At Friday, 01 February, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really enjoy reading your blog, it always has great insight. But I am very frustrated with the media’s lack of questions to the presidential candidates about global warming. Now that it is down to just a few candidates I would think that this would be a bigger issue.

Live Earth just picked up this topic and put out an article ( ) asking why the presidential candidates are not being solicited for their stance on the issue of the climate change. I just saw an article describing each candidate’s stance on global warming and climate change on . So obviously they care about it. Is it the Medias fault for not asking the right questions or is it the candidates’ fault for not highlighting the right platforms? Does anyone know of other websites or articles that touch on this subject and candidates’ views? This is the biggest problem of the century and for generations to come…you would think the next president of the United States would be more vocal about it.


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