Chris Hopson | Harvard University

The 2016 US presidential election was framed by some as a race between one of the most qualified candidates in history and one of the least qualified candidates in history.  Clinton supporters lauded her decades of experience in politics, and contrasted it with Trump’s lack of experience in government or military service. This lack of experience, as the opponents of Trump claimed, made him unqualified for the presidency.  

Such an argument has been used before against other presidential candidates, most recently during the 2008 campaign. Barack Obama was a young, one-term US Senator from Illinois, and his opponents contrasted this with John McCain’s long record of service in the military and the US Senate.  The terms ‘inexperienced’ and ‘unqualified’ function as political insults, designed to dismiss the opponent as a silly or even dangerous choice. This rhetoric has empirical effects; New York Times exit polling data from the 2016 presidential election found that among voters who named “experience” as the most important quality in a candidate, Clinton won 90% of the vote to Trump’s 8%.

But what exactly does it mean for a candidate to have experience?  And is having experience synonymous with being ‘qualified’? I argue that there are many ways for a candidate to be qualified for the presidency and that this is illustrated by the fact that there are many different ways to think about experience and qualification.  The most obvious form of experience cited in political discourse is a record of holding public office, the higher-level and longer duration the better. During the 2016 campaign, it was frequently lamented that Donald Trump had never held elected office before, but in fact, four other US presidents fit this bill.  Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, Herbert Hoover, and Dwight Eisenhower won their first elections when they were elected president. Taylor, Grant, and Eisenhower were recognized as a form of experience besides officeholding: military service. Grant and Eisenhower are somewhat special cases, seeing as each was a key player in winning a major war not long before they were elected, and were thus seen as national heroes of a sort.  But a large number of US presidents--a majority, in fact--served in the military in some capacity before taking office. Despite the fact that Eisenhower is considered the US’s last ‘military president’, military service is still politically valuable today, as it calls to mind patriotism, honor, and selflessness for many voters.

Hoover, who along with Trump is one of two presidents not to have a record of elected office or military service before the presidency, headed the US Food Administration and Commerce Department before becoming president, which can be seen as a form of bureaucratic experience.  Hoover was appointed to those positions in part because of his relative success in business, which is another form of experience that many voters recognize. In 2016, both Carly Fiorina and Donald Trump used their experience in the corporate world as a major campaign platform, and Trump was, of course, ultimately successful with that appeal.

Clearly, there is no one type of ‘experience’ that qualifies one for the presidency.  But what’s the relationship between ‘experience’ and ‘qualification’? A view of history suggests that there is no clear correlation between certain types of experience and a successful presidency, judging by how past presidents are remembered today.  Consider those presidents who had no record of elected officeholding before the presidency. Zachary Taylor isn’t talked about much, and the memory of Herbert Hoover’s presidency is overshadowed by memories of the Great Depression, but Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight Eisenhower enjoy positive reputations today.  Among presidents who had comparatively little experience in national politics or the military before taking office, Barack Obama, Woodrow Wilson, and Abraham Lincoln have positive reputations as well. Among presidents with lots of previous political experience, not all are remembered kindly today. Richard Nixon, for example, was a Representative, a Senator, and Vice President before becoming president himself, but he is remembered today more for his vulgarity and corruption than for his political accomplishments.

The example of Richard Nixon illustrates what I think is an important point for any Democrats and Republicans who seek to challenge President Trump in 2020 to consider: speaking about ‘experience’, or Trump’s lack of it, will not win an election.  And after all, by 2020 he will have had four years of experience being president anyway. A much more accurate indicator of qualification, compared to any given conception of ‘experience’, is temperament.  I would argue that many of the scandals, controversies, and embarrassments of the Trump White House so far are not the result of his or his team’s lack of experience; from day one, he has surrounded himself with establishment figures and interests, and gotten rid of some of the firebrands (like Bannon and Scaramucci).  Rather, they show that his uneven temperament produces a volatile working environment in the West Wing, and that his decision-making capacities are impaired by his dispositions. Historically, temperament has always outweighed experience, in both directions. A relatively inexperienced candidate in Barack Obama went on to lead an almost completely scandal-free administration for eight years, led by his reputation as ‘no drama Obama’.  On the other hand, an experienced candidate in Richard Nixon went on to helm an administration that today is synonymous with lies, corruption, and moral decay, a reputation largely fueled by his personal temperamental flaws.

As the Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans gear up for 2020, they should remember that if they really want to highlight the differences between their candidate and Trump, they shouldn’t pick someone just because they seem to have the right kind of ‘experience’.  There are many forms of experience, and Trump has convinced a lot of the country that his form is valuable. They should pick a candidate who can be the temperamental foil to Trump: someone calm, collected, and level-headed. In this age, that’s almost qualification enough.

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