Column: Thanks to Trump, we have an epidemic of unqualified candidates
One of the most damaging legacies of the Trump presidency may be that it persuaded people with absolutely no qualifications that they could and should run for public office — and that at least some of the time, Americans might be foolish enough to vote for them.
After all, that was the clear takeaway from Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, wasn’t it? That you don’t need to be smart or experienced or level-headed or decent to win an election. You don’t need a rationale or a plan. You just need money, chutzpah and too much personality. Name recognition — positive or negative — doesn’t hurt either.
For the record:
9:49 a.m. July 14, 2021An earlier version of this story said that William Jennings Bryan ran for president in 1896 with no prior political experience. Bryan served two terms in the House of Representatives prior to his presidential run.
Trump was the first president in U.S. history to be elected with no political or military experience, and we’re now reaping the whirlwind: Former decathlete and Wheaties spokesperson Caitlyn Jenner is running for governor of California in a recall election. Previously unknown businessman Andrew Yang, having failed to become president or mayor of New York City, is warning that he still hopes to contribute to public life. Matthew McConaughey — yes, the actor — is polling surprisingly well as he mulls a run for governor of Texas. Lara Trump, wife of Eric, seriously considered running for U.S. Senate in North Carolina but just announced she has ruled it out “for now.”
None of these dilettante candidates has held public office, and none of them is willing to start at the beginning in local politics. Why should they? School boards and city councils are for little people. Not for Trump hangers-on, retired fat cats and movie stars!
At the moment, of all the empty suits considering political careers, the one that really mystifies me is Andrew Giuliani, the son of the man formerly known as “America’s Mayor.” He has announced that he’s running for governor of New York in 2022 on the strength, I guess, of his father’s name.
Is it possible he’s unaware that Rudy Giuliani’s name is mud? Does Andrew not remember his father’s melting mascara, his porn-adjacent press conference, his Ukraine shenanigans or the FBI’s raid on his home and office? Or all the irresponsible lies and distortions he peddled about the supposedly stolen election — untruths that led
to the suspension of his New York law license in June and his District of Columbia license on Wednesday?
At some point even in America your family name has to cease being an asset and become an impediment.
Unfortunately, the younger Giuliani doesn’t appear to have a record of his own to run on. He’s a 35-year-old former professional golfer with so little experience that his official bio still touts the academic honors he got in college. As far as I can tell, he was given his first real job by Trump in 2017. He quickly became a “special assistant to the president.”
Now don’t get me wrong. Everyone has the right to run for office, including Andrew Giuliani. And you need only to look at the House of Representatives — where members as different as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Marjorie Taylor Greene were both elected without previously holding office — to see the willingness of voters to take fliers.
But not every candidate has the right to be taken seriously.
And here’s why all this matters.
Jonathan Rauch, a scholar at Brookings, and his colleague Raymond J. La Raja of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, have written about what they call “the amateurization of American politics.” Their research shows that more and more candidates without experience, especially Republicans, are running for office, frequently challenging incumbents. And all too often they’re winning.
In 1990, inexperienced candidates defeated experienced candidates in House primaries less than 25% of the time, according to their data; by 2016, that had risen to nearly 55% for Republicans and to around 35% for Democrats.
Some of these amateurs are rich, connected and famous; others aren’t. What they share is a lack of qualifications.
Is this amateurization really a problem? A lot of voters don’t think it is. Many Americans have a cynical, vote-the-rascals-out attitude and a gut feeling that “outsiders” are more trustworthy than “career politicians.”
This attitude goes back long before Trump in American political culture. California basically invented the celebrity politician when it sent Hollywood hoofer George Murphy to the U.S. Senate in 1965 and Ronald Reagan to Sacramento in 1967. Outsiders with no political experience who have run for president include Wendell Willkie in 1940 and Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996.
But in September 2015, a year before the Trump election, it was at some kind of crazy new high. That year, 31% of those surveyed by the Pew Research Center — including 44% of Republicans — actually said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who had longtime experience as an elected official in Washington.
That’s just nuts. Politics is a complex business, and while experience is no guarantee of competence, inexperience is hardly an asset. Candidates who are less experienced, Rauch and La Raja have noted, are often more strongly ideological.
Sure, there are longtime politicians who are phoning it in or feathering their own nests. But for the most part, experience counts — especially if you want to be governor, where you could end up like Gavin Newsom, running the world’s fifth-largest economy and overseeing more than 200,000 state employees, or if you want to be a U.S. senator deciding things like whether the United States should go to war and who should sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.
These are not entry-level jobs for kids who’ve held a few internships and played a lot of golf.
The ability to negotiate, to cut complex deals, to work across the aisle, to make government function again are all at risk. If you don’t believe me, just remember the Trump years.
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