Most experts would probably agree that the most important role for a president is head of state. In Article I, the framers of our Constitution created Congress to make the laws. Article III invested in the courts the authority to interpret those laws. Between the legislative and judicial branches, Article II gave us a single executive who is unrivaled as our chief diplomat, general, and face of the nation. As voters, we want to know that our presidential candidates can handle the complex responsibilities of ably administrating foreign policy and competently serving as commander-in-chief.
Despite Hillary Clinton’s spotty past, present, and, let’s face it, future, she is unquestionably experienced when it comes to foreign policy. She served as Secretary of State for four years, and before that she was an eight-year U.S. Senator on the Armed Services Committee. Her policies can be debated, but her superior experience cannot — a fact noted by Marco Rubio in a nationally televised Republican debate. Her running mate, Senator Tim Kaine, also has time on the Senate Armed Services Committee in addition to the Foreign Relations Committee. It’s an experienced ticket.
Donald Trump, however, has no experience in this area. I would have advised him, since his most open path to victory was in a national security election, that he should pick someone with national security bona fides as his running mate. Instead, he chose to shore up his right flank with Mike Pence. The Indiana Governor did spend 12 years in the House of Representatives, half of it on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, but that’s the extent of this ticket’s experience in national security.
Now, I know what Republicans are thinking: it’s about the “right kind of experience,” a frustratingly malleable assertion that allows partisans to criticize the inexperience of an opponent in one election but defend the inexperience of one’s own candidate in another. Republicans criticized Barack Obama for his inexperience in 2008, especially when contrasted to John McCain, but experience now seems devalued. Likewise, Democrats who now point to Clinton’s experience looked the other way on that subject eight years ago. I know — frustrating.
Here at PPFA, we think experience is an important characteristic for presidential job applicants, despite our collective frustration with politicians. One would not hire someone who has never worked in baseball to turn around a struggling franchise, a non-musician to play lead guitar in a band whose glory days are behind them, or a mere high school history teacher to write about presidential politics. (No, I’m not bitter. Why do you ask?) Even if one agrees with an amateur’s course of action, that does not make that amateur a better pick. Consider a heart operation: a surgeon wants to do Procedure A, while you and your accountant think you should do Procedure B. Which one would you rather cut open your chest — the seasoned surgeon or the agreeable accountant?
Interestingly, the failed Romney/Ryan ticket of four years ago was similarly green when it came to national security, but at least each of them had diverse experiences, like governing, time in the House, business, and, you know, reading books. These traits convinced me and others that they could at least work their way through issues of national importance.
For today’s post, I want to look at prior presidential tickets to see when was the last time we had a ticket this inexperienced in matters of national security. For each election, I’ll list the foreign policy experience for the top and bottom of each party’s ticket. (Exception: if a party has the sitting president, I consider that the ultimate experience. No VP listed.)
Democrats: President Barack Obama, Founder of ISIS
Republicans: See above.
President: Barack Obama (almost totally without relevant experience)
Vice-President: Joe Biden (a six-term Senator, including chairing the Foreign Relations Committee)
President: John McCain (fourth-term Senator, including chairing the Armed Services Committee)
Vice-President: Sarah Palin (Where do you think Putin’s planes fly over on their way in from Russia?)
President: John Kerry (four-term U.S. senator, including chairing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee)
Vice-President: John Edwards (first term senator)
Republicans: President George W. Bush
President: Al Gore (sitting vice-president, formerly U.S. Senator who served on Homeland Security and Armed Services committees)
Vice-President: Joe Lieberman (two-term Senator, chaired Homeland Security Committee)
President: George W. Bush (Governor)
Vice-President: Dick Cheney (former Secretary of State and White House Chief of Staff)
Democrats: President Bill Clinton
President: Bob Dole (four-term Senator and the Senate Majority Leader)
Vice-President: Jack Kemp (Congressman, Quarterback and AFL MVP)
President: Bill Clinton (Governor)
Vice-President: Al Gore (two-term U.S. Senator who served on Homeland Security and Armed Services committees)
Republicans: President George H.W. Bush
President: Michael Dukakis (Governor)
Vice-President: Lloyd Bentsen (three-term U.S. Senator)
President: George H.W. Bush (sitting vice-president, former director of the CIA and ambassador to the United Nations)
Vice-President: Dan Quayle (Senator, perpetual punchline)
President: Walter Mondale (former vice-president, two-term U.S. Senator, and Ambassador to Japan)
Vice-President: Geraldine Ferraro (House member)
Republicans: President Ronald Reagan
Democrats: President Jimmy Carter
President: Ronald Reagan (Governor; Second Coming)
Vice-President: George H.W. Bush (former director of the CIA; ambassador to the United Nations)
President: Jimmy Carter (Governor; peanut farmer)
Vice-President: Walter Mondale (two-term U.S. Senator; Ambassador to Japan)
Republicans: President Gerald Ford
This is when I got tired of listing each election, and I’m usually indefatigable with these sorts of things. Still, even in just these three decades, there had always been at least one person on the ticket with legitimate foreign policy experience. I continued to look back beyond 1976 to see where the string was broken. It was back in 1948, when governors Thomas Dewey of New York and Earl Warren of California challenged President Truman and Senator Alben Barkley. Chances are you haven’t heard of at least two of those people, and that’s because that election was nearly 70 years ago.
Of course, everyone weighs experience differently, and that evaluation is usually tied to what letter is next to the candidates’ names in the voting booth. Politics is fun.