The United States is a democracy. So let’s stipulate at the outset that anyone who wants to run for president and meets the constitutional requirements should be allowed to take a stab at it. If you can get on the ballot, you have a right to be heard.
Let’s also stipulate that nearly 250 years after the founding of the country, Americans still don’t know exactly how to identify the unusual and indescribable combination of traits that makes for a great president. Voters have elected presidents with broad and deep experience in government who’ve botched the job, while occasionally those with far less experience who seemed perhaps not ready for prime time have performed well. Experience isn’t everything.
That said, however, we’re disturbed by an apparently growing sense that a successful background in politics and policy is no longer necessary for a presidential candidate—and that merely being really, really rich or famous or dazzlingly articulate or wanting the job badly enough could be sufficient to vault a wannabe into serious contention. The latest candidate to put himself forward with very few traditional credentials is Tom Steyer, a billionaire money manager from Northern California who has never been elected to public office or worked in government. He’s been active in the environmental movement for the last decade or so and has spent millions promoting candidates and causes, but at least by the standards of yesteryear, he’s not qualified for the nation’s top office himself. He’s earned a lot of money—Forbes estimates he’s worth $1.6 billion—but do we really believe that makes a person suited to run the country?
And Steyer, who presented himself as a populist outsider at his announcement this month, is not the only, uh, nontraditional candidate in the race. Marianne Williamson, the self-help writer, and Andrew Yang, a tech evangelist and entrepreneur, were up there on the debate stage a few weeks ago. For a while there was Howard Schultz, the Starbucks gazillionaire who was actively exploring a run until suspending the effort for the summer (and possibly longer).
There are exceptions to every rule, but by and large it still makes sense to hunt for candidates who have proved through a career in public service that they can lead, that they can think critically and learn quickly, that they can persuade and inspire, that they have a vision and a plan to achieve it, that they know when to compromise and when to stand firm. It’s still important for a president to have an understanding of policy, to have a track record of navigating among factions, maybe even to have been tested in crisis. Haven’t the last three years reinforced that common sense?
By all means, voters should be open to candidates who are not traditional career pols or who have risen to prominence in other ways. But the idea that we should rally mindlessly behind a candidate who claims to be an outsider, and proves it by his or her inexperience, is rapidly losing its appeal.