Even asking that question presents a conundrum in the Trump era.
And applying an answer to the 2020 candidates is significantly more complicated than it was four years ago when I first penned a piece in January 2015 titled “We should expand the Constitutional requirements for President to include relevant experience.”
Back then, I suggested a list of qualification criteria to be matched against all the prospective 2016 presidential candidates of both parties. If met, voters would be more assured that those seeking the highest office in the land would have had a “reasonable demonstration of experience.”
My motive for raising the qualification issue was an opinion that Barack Obama’s presidency was plagued by his lack of “traditional” experience when in 2008 he surfed a tsunami of media adoration into the White House with the “thinnest résumé” in modern U.S. presidential history.
(And yes, Obama was re-elected in 2012, but again he was showered with excessively positive media coverage while his GOP opponent, former Gov. Mitt Romney, was continually skewered.)
Another motivation for recommending presidential qualification criteria in 2015 was the preponderance of GOP candidates running for vainglorious reasons such as bolstering their résumés, auditioning for cable TV gigs, or attempting to establish or strengthen their political “brand.”
Here were my recommended criteria for the 2016 presidential field:
- Served as vice president of the United States.
- Completed one six-year term in the U.S. Senate before declaring.
- Completed a four-year term as governor of a state before declaring.
- Served at least six years (three full terms) in the U.S. House of Representatives before declaring.
- Served at least four years in a Cabinet post requiring Senate confirmation before declaring.
- Retired from the military after achieving the rank of four-star general or admiral.
And as a codicil: 7. A candidate who, at the time of declaring, is no longer serving in one of the above posts but has spent no more than eight years out of office.
Testing the criteria by applying them to the first elections of what were then twelve post-World War II presidents, I found that only one failed to qualify — the incumbent.
Then I matched the most likely prospective 2016 candidates using this same criteria, and about three-quarters of them qualified. However, among those who failed were three first-term GOP senators with the last names of Rubio, Paul, and Cruz.
Meanwhile — and proving the axiom that “nothing is impossible” — my January 2015 list of GOP presidential prospects excluded a New York real-estate developer and reality-TV star by the name of Donald J. Trump. (And even if he were included, he would have failed to “qualify.”)
But six months later, on June 16, 2015, Trump famously announced his candidacy — immediately surging to the top of the GOP heap, from which he was never toppled.
After Trump’s astounding victory on Nov. 8, 2016, my list of “reasonable” presidential qualifications is, for all intents and purposes, null and void.
Now, gearing up for 2020 and because I am a “traditionalist,” let’s determine how many of the likely Democratic presidential candidates are “qualified” according to my 2015 criteria, just for the record.
Listed below in order of their appearance on the most recent “Washington Post Pundit Power Rankings” are the top 15. At this writing, several have not officially “announced,” but stay tuned.
- Sen. Kamala Harris has not completed a full six-year Senate term, so she fails to qualify under #2.
- Former Vice President Joe Biden qualifies under #1.
- Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who failed to qualify on my 2015 list, has now completed one six-year term and qualifies under #2.
- Sen. Sherrod Brown has served two full terms, qualifying under #2. And, after spending 14 years in the U.S House of Representatives, #4 as well.
- Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke served six years in the House and qualifies under #4.
- Sen. Bernie Sanders qualifies under #2 and #4.
- Sen. Amy Klobuchar doubly satisfies #2, after her election to the U.S. Senate in 2006.
- Sen. Cory Booker misses qualifying under #2 by one year. In Oct. 2013 he won a special election and then was re-elected in 2014.
- Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has served since 2009 and is qualified under #2.
- Michael Bloomberg, former NYC mayor, fails to satisfy any of the “requirements.”
- Howard Schultz, the former Starbucks CEO, also fails to qualify.
- Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who just finished two terms, qualifies under #3.
- Julian Castro, who served as U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development from July 28, 2014-Jan. 20, 2017, fails to qualify under #5 because he served for less than four years in a Cabinet post requiring Senate confirmation.
- Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., fails to quality.
- Oprah Winfrey fails to qualify.
Now, what pearls of wisdom can we glean from this exercise?
The election of Donald Trump in 2016 and Barack Obama in 2008 proved that “traditional” presidential experience is expendable when fully replaced by two factors. First, the candidate must have a strong, rousing message or slogan that resonates with voters, gives rise to a political movement, or is a backlash against the political status quo, such as Trump’s “Make America Great Again” and Obama’s “Hope and Change.”
Second, he must be either a “celebrity” candidate (or a media-created one) endowed with magic charisma causing the media to lose its collective mind or a media-magnet that the media love to hate — with a unique talent of increasing TV ratings and page-views across all platforms — ultimately leading to increased media profits.
Both of those factors allowed Obama to lower the bar of presidential experience. Then, eight years later, Trump smashed the bar into a million pieces, perhaps forever.
The political lesson in the social media age is that celebrity trumps traditional presidential experience — so get used to it — and here is the new reality: On Dec. 4, 2018, a headline in the Washington Post read, “Joe Biden says he’s ‘most qualified’ to be president. So what?”
So, “Who is qualified to be president?”
Cross-posted at RealClear Politics