Sunday, March 13, 2016
The Qualifications of a President
What are the "qualifications" of a President of the United States? This question came up first in a letter I received yesterday (to which I wrote a lengthy reply by hand) and then in a Facebook post with someone I know, and like, who supports Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination but is already declaring his support for Hillary Clinton if (I would say when) she prevails.
So between the letter I wrote and the response I wrote on Facebook, here for my blog are some thoughts on the qualifications of a president.
Sometimes people like to analogize this process as a lengthy job interview before the American public. However, I've been involved in hiring people in the private sector. It tends to be a much more rigorous and orderly process than a general election. A few people compare a candidate's experience and skill set to a written job description, assess the candidate's job history and temperament for the tasks required by the job, and make a decision. Electing a president is not like this at all.
Did you know that at the Constitutional Convention there was a serious proposal that the Constitution should establish a minimum net worth as a qualification for being president? Otherwise the founders had little to say about the minimum qualifications. A person who could win an election presumably was sufficiently well connected, knowledgeable, or able to assemble advisers to help him. There is still a belief among many (rich and poor alike) that a wealthy person is better suited to lead the country. We are a plutocratic culture.
The essential qualification is the ability to win an election. Most presidents have been personally wealthy, or wealthy enough to persuade high level donors that they "get it" and will be a spokesman for what we call "national interests." This candidate must, at the same time, persuade enough people that they are not wholly in the thrall of wealthy interests, so they can win popular votes as well as electoral votes.
This is why Barack Obama won in 2008. Hillary Clinton had a much more extensive resume. I doubt anyone rivals her working knowledge of government. Obama was also a fresh entrant to the leader class, unlike Clinton. But Obama won the confidence of Wall Street at the same time that he wooed the masses with his "yes we can" campaign. His populism was convincing enough for the public, but the donor class never feared for his ideology; and he had no record to contradict his populist message, which is a major problem for Hillary Clinton. Winning a presidential election is not and never has been about your knowledge or expertise. It's been about your ability to win the hearts of the masses while assuring capitalists that you will be good for them. That's what makes you "electable."
Among Republicans, I have been feeling tender for my friend Jonathan Funke (a middle school classmate!), a principled Republican who has been campaigning for Governor John Kasich of Ohio.
Kasich is certainly qualified intellectually to hold the presidency, has the most actual policy experience in both federal and state government, and in the nominating process was frankly the most seasoned and capable person on a stage crowded with clowns, sleaze-bags, and know-nothings. Kasich is said to be a very good campaigner in a room, but television hasn't taken much interest in him since the week he announced his candidacy. "Not his moment," as the saying goes.
Bernie Sanders is hated by much of Wall Street as well as the Democratic Party organization, which does not want to alienate Wall Street support. They will, I think, stifle his insurgency in the end.
We are not supposed to pay attention to third party candidates, even though sometimes these candidates are eminently qualified for the job. In 2008, the year a first-term Senator won the presidency, the Libertarian Party ran Bob Barr as its presidential candidate. Barr had been a federal prosecutor and served four terms in the House of Representatives as a Republican. That same year, the Green Party ran Cynthia McKinney, who had also served several terms in the House (as a Democrat). Both of these third party candidates had more "experience" in federal government than the Democratic nominee, but they were running outside the duopoly, which hobbled their ability to raise money for a national campaign and also marginalized them in the eyes of the media and the populace. We are well trained to believe that only the Democratic and Republican candidates are worth our consideration. (And structurally, third-party candidates face enormous obstacles - by design. This is not a democracy.) Journalists will occasionally call on Gary Johnson or maybe even Jill Stein to get an amusing quote, but they won't take them seriously.
So, by the standard discussed here, Hillary Clinton is certainly "electable." Her biggest challenge, honestly, is to distract enough people from actually looking at her record critically. Examining her record exposes her governing ideology, which contradicts her populist message. For those who have been paying attention, it is awfully hard to reconcile her words with the policies she has stood for in the past. Lately she has been calling for love and kindness. I think of what she did in Honduras and I see neither. I try to think of a single war or act of U.S. military aggression that she has opposed and can't think of one. Love and kindness might be an effective campaign theme to use against a Trump candidacy; but you won't find much of it in her policy record. The business of governing the American empire is not a matter of "love and kindness," but talking that way wins votes. ("Yes we can!") She seems to have maintained a hold on demographic groups that, if you look at policies, owe her no thanks. When she slips up (as when she praised the Reagan legacy on AIDS, a legacy that was actually deeply harmful and worthy of opprobrium), she's very good at recovering and changing the subject.
I don't have doubts about Hillary Clinton's ability to win the election - to attract the money she would need and to persuade enough of the public to vote for her despite her record. She will have to do it without my vote. I've been following Honduras since the coup, a bit of business in which she was actively involved as Secretary of State, the reign of terror that persists there and the refugee crisis (many of whom are being turned away and deported as they seek asylum, which is their international right). Love and kindness. We all of course live in the aftermath of Iraq - and Clinton's Iraq vote was not a "mistake." TPP will almost certainly pass - and Clinton may be publicly against it now, but she lent her expertise and influence heavily to shaping that treaty and the donor class has no illusions about her continuing to support it as president. Like Obama, industry understands she will talk about climate change but will not require radical action that curtails industry profit-taking. And I have more concerns, but it would just belabor my point. My own ethics prevent me from casting a vote for her.
Alas, ethics has almost nothing to do with how a president gets elected.