Political Experience and the Presidency: Does It Matter?

The question of political experience is one that has picked up a fair amount of steam during this presidential election cycle, particularly given the current candidate pool. At one point last fall, the GOP’s top polling candidates were a former tech company CEO, a retired neurosurgeon, and a businessman/reality TV personality. Though the field has since thinned out, Donald Trump remains a top contender for the GOP nomination – with no political experience to his name. So just how important is that experience when it comes to the Office of the Presidency? A little? A lot? Not at all? Ask me in a couple of years after Trump takes office? (Just kidding on that last one. If kidding also means praying fervently that this will never ever ever never be a legitimate scenario to consider in real life. Oh please. Please no.)

To start, let’s recall the language in the Constitution regarding requirements for the presidency. From Article II, Section 1, “…No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.” Obviously not a long list of qualifications – and none of them mention anything regarding experience.

It’s conceivable that this language – much like many other parts of the Constitution – was deliberately vague. Laying out the minimum requirements for the office left plenty of room for the citizens to elect anyone among them; there would be no vestiges of monarchy or aristocracy in this new republican system. But did this also mean that the Founders intended for those with limited political knowledge to have a real shot at the presidency? This is not so likely.

Ben Carson is one of the current presidential candidates who relies heavily upon the rhetoric of early America in his stump speeches and prepared remarks. “We the People” is one of his favorite phrases to use, as he rallies supporters around the idea that he is a political Everyman, pledged to the cause of the popular will. A few months ago, facing criticism for his (lack of) qualifications for the presidential role, he posted an impassioned defense of his credentials on Facebook:

carson fb

He goes on in this same post to state, “I do not have political experience, I have a life journey,” and equates his time spent in the operating room with other careers in public service. Apart from his concerning historical inaccuracy regarding the Founders (his original post from November 4 stated that “Every signer of the Declaration of Independence had no elected office experience,” which, after considerable backlash, was hastily edited to add the word “federal” the next day – thus improving the technicality, if not the spirit, of his willful ignorance on the subject), he is hell-bent on embodying the anti-politician. His lack of political experience is portrayed as not even a hindrance, but rather a benefit. He appeals to common sense in solving political problems. You just need a good mind, a sound sense of judgment, and some good old fashioned pluck to be a good president, according to Carson’s campaign.

But is that really what the Founders had in mind?

Any student of early American political thought can tell you the novel genius of the system of governance crafted by James Madison and the rest of the Framers. Madison had studied with meticulous detail the histories of governments throughout the world, ultimately using that knowledge to conceive of the American framework and draft it into the Virginia Plan – and, eventually, the Constitution. One of the key purposes in amending the weak and ineffective Articles of Confederation at the time was, especially for Madison, to rein in the excesses of pure democracy. A weightier federal government, combined with representative democracy, was a principal means to achieve this.

In short – many of the Founders, and especially the Federalists, feared the demagoguery of direct democracy. They feared the outcome of ordinary citizens who were given a political voice without restraint. And they hoped that the system they designed would elevate qualified candidates to elected office, where they could draw upon their knowledge and, yes, experience – to more ably discern the will, and the good, of the people.

Sorry, Ben Carson. But “We the People” may not be the best means to tout the merits of your blank political resume, after all.

During Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008, a popular objection to his candidacy was his lack of experience. Though he had spent 8 years as an Illinois state senator prior to his election to the U.S. Senate in 2005, and several years working in community organizing and civil rights legal work prior to that, he was seen as a relative newcomer to Washington politics. Could he be effective as president with such limited experience? Arguably not, for many opponents. And yet in 2016, Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz stand as additional frontrunners alongside Trump and Carson for the Republican nomination – both in their freshman terms as U.S. Senators, just like Obama was.

So the question stands: does political experience really matter in becoming the president of the United States? If so, how much?

I don’t necessarily have an answer to this. One caveat for consideration is in the nature of what qualifies as “experience” for a president. Elected office would be the most obvious choice, and also arguably the most beneficial. Governors with executive experience would have clear advantages, as would senators or representatives with legislative know-how, especially at the national level. Military experience, especially in leadership, would be particularly useful field for presidential involvement in national security and foreign policy. Other fields of public policy and service could have similar arguments for efficacy. It’s even possible that scholars and pundits could have an advantage, at a minimum in their knowledge of process and procedure. Even just a few years in one or more of these fields would give candidates some base upon which to draw. But I can’t see that a complete lack of any political or public service experience, knowledge or demonstrated capability could in any way be construed as advantageous for a presidential candidate. It is simply unreasonable to think so. Ben Carson’s medical knowledge is indubitably expansive, but is it sufficient to qualify him for the presidency? I wouldn’t trust an average politician to walk into a hospital and perform brain surgery – and hopefully, neither would he.

It’s a tricky subject, to be sure. What is the risk of inexperience to the Executive Office – significant or minimal? How quickly could it be overcome? Does the Constitution itself need alteration in its presidential requirements, or should the political parties alter their means of selection for nominees? If so, how?

Inevitably, a potential Trump nomination would highlight these questions as even more pressing to our national political circumstance. But should his candidacy fade, so too might the popular debate on this topic.