Richard Nixon was one of the most experienced people to assume the presidency. JFK had less experience than almost anyone. Yet he beat Richard Nixon in the middle of the Cold War with the president being responsible for a possible nuclear war. JFK’s inexperience led to the Bay of Pigs disaster, but he learned the lessons from this, accepted responsibility and managed the Cuban missile crisis expertly. Richard Nixon was experienced–he knew how to work the levers of power; but his personality led him to be secretive, to try to bully and intimidate those who disagreed with him, etc. JFK was able to remedy his inexperience while Nixon was not able to remedy his issues.
If you want to look to a more recent example of the price of experience, just look at Donald Rumsfeld–who was one of the single most experienced bureaucrats in Washington–having worked for the military industry and having been Secretary of Defense previously during Ford’s tenure, as well as chief of staff to the president. And yet despite–and in a way, because of–his experience, his time as Secretary of Defense was an absolute disaster for the military. We could talk about Cheney too if you wanted.
Some of our greatest presidents have had little or no national experience before they became president–Lincoln, Truman, and Clinton come to mind.
Neither Obama nor Clinton, nor most other politicians, are philosophers. Obama was not pretending to offer a solution, but rather a course of action. It is his best guess of what to do under the circumstances he described. This is why it is important to see how Obama, Clinton, or any other presidential candidate thinks. Because no political solution works as expected. And then they are left to their judgment. In other words, policy is trumped by facts for any competent leader.
An example: George H.W. Bush said that he would not raise taxes in his 1988 election campaign. He decided to raise taxes anyway because he saw disturbing deficits. The facts trumped policy. Woodrow Wilson ran in 1916 promising to keep America out of World War I. He sent American troops to Europe just a few years later because facts trumped policy. The best prism to understand political actions is not philosophy as traditionally understood, but rather contingency.
How to evaluate a candidate
There are four main areas on which to judge a presidential candidate in descending order of importance:
- his or her decision-making process (or more classically, his or her judgment)
- his or her character and life experiences
- his or her ability to communicate
- his or her mental abilities
- his or her policy proposals
Judgment is by the far the most important quality a president must possess. It is the only quality that the brilliant and able men around George Washington acknowledged that he possessed more of, and with only this quality in surplus, they all looked to him and acknowledged him as their superior.
A person’s character and life experiences are also relevant to understanding a president’s decision-making process, and also to see how they will withstand the pressures of the presidency and most importantly if they will be able to withstand the temptations of power to punish and demonize, to enrich themselves, to hoard. The president must be able to understand the limits of his or her power, as well as the power of America; and at the same time, to see the tremendous influence that America can and does have.
A person’s ability to communicate is essential as the most significant power of the president is to command the media and communicate his or her message–it is this access to the media that gives the president the most significant advantage in dealing with Congress and international affairs. Everyone wants to know what the president has to say.
A person’s mental ability needs to meet a certain threshold; more is obviously better, but not at the expense of the above. Intelligence can as easily lead a person astray as to the right decisions. It was often said that FDR has a second class intellect and a first class temperament. Thomas Jefferson, one of the most brilliant presidents, was also one of the least successful.
And policy proposals. Only the broad categories seem to matter much–for the specifics change over time and with the circumstances. Better to have a good person as president than one who you agree with on policy matters.
Part II forthcoming. Clinton and Obama, strengths and weaknesses.