Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Are Presidential Candidates Fit for Office?

Tim Sherratt


November 23, 2007

Britain’s Daily Telegraph led with the shrill headline, “Clinton Strikes Back in Vegas Debate.” An all too familiar tone in campaign coverage. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Lest you dismiss my complaint as an old whine poured into 2008’s new wineskins, let me elaborate. Voters need predictability. They need to know that behind the candidates for president stand teams with firm commitments ready to develop clear strategies to implement those commitments. Citizens need to know that the candidates embody the party organizations with which they say they identify.

The kind of predictability voters don’t need is the same old pabulum of personality clashes, the repeated wonderments about whether the nation is ready for a female president or an African-American president, and similar marginalia. Citizens who cannot attach even reasonably safe predictions to their vote are disenfranchised.

To restore predictability to the electoral process, the parties would have to regain control of their nominees. They lost that control to primary elections decades ago. The semblance of party loyalty that parties get from their candidates comes only by a strenuous effort to lure them with party funds. For the most part, however, each candidate runs independently.

Absent party control of the selection process, voters can fall back on two of the Constitution’s defining structural features. One is the distinctive executive office of the presidency; the other is federalism.

There is no reason that any presidential candidate should lack executive experience. Governors hold an office that requires as much complex decision making as the presidency, albeit on a smaller scale. This year, three governors are running: Richardson (D-NM), Romney (R-MA) and Huckabee (R-AR), although only Romney is a top-tier candidate at present. Richardson offers the highest levels of experience and party attachment because he served as a congressman for fourteen years before assuming the governorship of New Mexico. His executive resume is enhanced by service as Ambassador to the UN and as Energy Secretary. Romney’s executive experience began in the private sector, but as Governor of Massachusetts he forged a bipartisan agreement for passage of the nation’s first universal health-care law. Governor Huckabee has held that office for a decade but is little known outside Arkansas.

A recent Romney ad fingered the basic problem for senators running for president, stating that the White House cannot be treated as an “internship.” Senators Clinton (D-NY), Obama (D-IL), and McCain (R-AZ) offer voters no executive experience. Senate voting records and length of service do tell voters something about party attachment, however. Sen. McCain’s long service (1983-2007) gives the clearest indication, so it is ironic that he has cultivated something of a maverick relationship with the Republican Party leadership. Sen. Clinton is in her second term with a voting record in the Democratic Party’s mainstream. Sen. Obama presents the slimmest profile as a first-term senator running a campaign to transcend politics.

The office of president calls for skill to build coalitions and a capacity to judge between delegation and control. The majority of presidential powers must be shared with Congress, with advisers, and with more distant bodies like the Federal Reserve Board. Despite the powers of the Commander-in-Chief, and despite the “bully pulpit,” the presidency is a limited office attached to unlimited popular expectations.

The media persist in personalizing the presidency and turning the contest into a horse race. Voters should look behind all that to a candidate’s fitness for office based not only on stated issue stances but also on relevant executive experience, degree of party attachment, and the professional qualities associated with each.

—Timothy Sherratt, Professor of Political Studies
    Gordon College

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”