No Experience Necessary

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My editor at TPM asked me to take a look yesterday at the historical precedents for so many candidates with no experience in elected office managing to run non-trivial presidential campaigns at the same time. And indeed, I can’t immediately find any precedent for three such candidates in a single cycle. As noted in my column, Trump, Carson and Fiorina registered a total of 42% support in the post-debate Fox News national poll of the GOP presidential nomination contest. Add in Ted Cruz, whose brief service in the U.S. Senate has mostly been devoted to attacking his colleagues, and you’ve got a clear majority preferring as little experience as possible.

Past “non-politician” candidates for president mostly had an abundance of other forms of public service. The last president without a prior elected position was the epitome: Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was on the public payroll most of his life, and was noted among generals more for his political acumen than his military skills. 2008 candidate Wes Clark was from the same mold. 2000 candidate Liddy Dole had served in two Cabinet positions, and was married to the ultimate Congressional Insider.

Steve Forbes and Herman Cain were entirely innocent of public office, like today’s trio. But they didn’t appear in the same cycle.

In writing my column, I added up the elected experience of the other 14 candidates in the ’16 GOP field, and came up with 144 years. That’s a lot of experience. But the only candidate who seems to be putting a lot of emphasis on how much experience he has is Rick Santorum, who is going nowhere fast.

Of the three novices, Carly Fiorina is the most unique historically insofar as she really has no great successes to boast of in the private or public sectors. Yes, she was by some accounts the first woman to head up one of the world’s largest corporations, but by even more accounts she ran HP into the ground and then used her golden parachute to run a notably unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign. Other than that, she’s good at getting appointed to the advisory committees of Republican presidential nominees–both McCain and Romney–and has the kind of communications skills you’d expect from someone used to doing Power Point presentations at shareholder meetings.

As I’ve discussed here often, there’s a big reason Fiorina has been largely bullet-proof despite her dubious resume; her gender makes her a very valuable party asset in a cycle where it’s still largely assumed Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee. But you’d have to say she’s also benefiting from the same strange climate that has made Trump the GOP front-runner (in the polls at least) and Carson a grassroots favorite. Decades of attacks on the public sector combined with decades of broken promises by Republican pols have produced a cycle in which “the base” isn’t buying anti-Washington rhetoric from senators (other than perhaps the systematically irresponsible Cruz) or even governors. Maybe one of the experienced candidates with Establishment backing–you know, those who together are pulling a small minority of the vote in the polls–will eventually be the nominee. But said Establishment and the pundits and political scientists who view it as all-powerful need to take a long look at the dynamics of this nominating contest.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.