The United States is a democracy. So let’s stipulate at the outset that anyone who wants to run for president and meets the constitutional requirements should be allowed to take a stab at it. If you can get on the ballot, you have a right to be heard.
Let’s also stipulate that nearly 250 years after the founding of the country, Americans still don’t know exactly how to identify the unusual and indescribable combination of traits that makes for a great president. Voters have elected presidents with broad and deep experience in government who’ve botched the job, while occasionally those with far less experience who seemed perhaps not ready for prime time have performed well. Experience isn’t everything.
That said, however, we’re disturbed by an apparently growing sense that a successful background in politics and policy is no longer necessary for a presidential candidate — and that merely being really, really rich or famous or dazzlingly articulate or wanting the job badly enough could be sufficient to vault a wannabe into serious contention. The latest candidate to put himself forward with very few traditional credentials is Tom Steyer, a billionaire money manager from Northern California who has never been elected to public office or worked in government. He’s been active in the environmental movement for the last decade or so and has spent millions promoting candidates and causes, but at least by the standards of yesteryear, he’s not qualified for the nation’s top office himself. He’s earned a lot of money — Forbes estimates he’s worth $1.6 billion — but do we really believe that makes a person suited to run the country?
And Steyer, who presented himself as a populist outsider at his announcement last week, is not the only, uh, nontraditional candidate in the race. Marianne Williamson, the self-help writer, and Andrew Yang, a tech evangelist and entrepreneur, were up there on the debate stage a few weeks ago. For a while there was Howard Schultz, the Starbucks gazillionaire who was actively exploring a run until suspending the effort for the summer (and possibly longer). Back in 2012 we had Herman Cain, the pizza guy, and in 2016 Carly Fiorina, the former tech chief executive turned failed Senate candidate. And, of course, there was you know who, who won the race in 2016.
It’s not unprecedented for people, and especially rich people, to seek the presidency even if they haven’t worked their way up the political ladder. Think of Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996. But Donald Trump’s flabbergasting, against-all-expectations victory in 2016 has emboldened all sorts of long shots to think they might really have a chance. Who would’ve thought that the mayor of South Bend, Ind. — a city of about 100,000 people — would jump in to the race, or that he would gain any traction?
The theory seems to be (and with some justification after 2016) that all bets are off, all rules are out the window. Maybe a smidgen of fame, a big personality and deep pockets, along with the marketing savvy to generate a whole lot of free media, are more important to voters than years spent drafting legislation, running a state or immersing oneself in policy.
At the risk of understatement, may we say that this is not a terribly healthy development? Trump is the first president — ever — to take office with neither a background in government nor top-level military experience. And how’s that working out?
There are exceptions to every rule, but by and large it still makes sense to hunt for candidates who have proved through a career in public service that they can lead, that they can think critically and learn quickly, that they can persuade and inspire, that they have a vision and a plan to achieve it, that they know when to compromise and when to stand firm. It’s still important for a president to have an understanding of policy, to have a track record of navigating among factions, maybe even to have been tested in crisis. Haven’t the last three years reinforced that common sense?
By all means, voters should be open to candidates who are not traditional career pols or who have risen to prominence in other ways. But the idea that we should rally mindlessly behind a candidate who claims to be an outsider, and proves it by his or her inexperience, is rapidly losing its appeal.