The Party Man prepares: Lincoln and Douglas debate. Painted by Robert Marshall Root. Courtesy of the Illinois State Historical Library via Britannica Kids.
How do you qualify for that job?
You hold it. It's on the job training. The only presidential candidates who were qualified at the time of their elections were those who were already president.
That's a group that includes George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Barack Obama.
It also includes Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Lyndon Johnson, problematic figures in different ways.
Then we have Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
All qualified. But qualified to do what?
Now look at the list of those deemed by voters to have unqualified themselves for second terms despite their impressive lists of qualifications that helped them win first terms by having failed at the job. John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, Herbert Hoover, and George Herbert Walker Bush.
Hard to invent more qualifying resumes for prospective presidents than the ones they each boasted when they were first elected.
Hillary Clinton boasts one of the best resumes of anyone who's ever applied for the job. Only Jefferson's and FDR's were significantly better.
Which is persuasive but not entirely case-closing when you consider that while the group with resumes as impressive as hers, besides including Madison and Monroe, also includes both Adamses, Van Buren, Hoover, Nixon, and the first George Bush.
As anyone who's ever had to screen job applicants will tell you it's common to come across a resume with a long list of qualifications that don't signify real achievement and even mask a long career of incompetence and failure. There are plenty of people who argue that Hillary Clinton’s is one of those resumes. I think that’s what Bernie Sanders meant when he called her unqualified.
Meanwhile a very thin resume can belong to the most exceptional people.
The presidents with the fewest qualifications on paper include Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama.
But not every qualification shows up on paper.
Lincoln was famously underestimated by political opponents and rivals and dismissed with contempt by many who observed him from a distance. But those who knew him and worked with him in Illinois didn’t make that mistake. Obama has been similarly underestimated and has faced a greater degree of contempt but, again, those who know him and work with him don’t make that mistake or persist long in continuing to make it. At every step in their political careers---and in the case of Lincoln his professional career and in the case of Obama his academic one---they impressed older and more experienced colleagues, mentors, and leaders with their intelligence, diligence, drive, persuasiveness, talent for leadership, and their ability to learn and grow. They were ambitious, of course, but it wasn’t just ambition that propelled them up the ladder. It was also the boosts they got from influential and powerful political leaders who were impressed by their accomplishments and saw in them potential for even greater achievement.
And they achieved what they did because they were prepared. They’d devoted themselves to preparing. They’d done the thinking and the required homework. Each step up readied them for the next step. At each step they began preparing for the next. Effectively then, they were preparing to become president from the moment they decided to enter politics.
Bernie Sanders’ eight years as mayor of Burlington, sixteen years in the United States House of Representatives, and nine in the U.S. Senate gives him a more imposing resume than either of them had when they ran for president. But there’s not much sign in Sanders’ biography that he’s ever done the same kind of preparation. And why would he have? He was working hard at being something else. He chose to be a voice of conscience instead of a leader. An agitator and a prophet not a king. He doesn’t seem to have decided he wanted to be president until last year. So it would make sense that he wasn’t preparing for it. But then he doesn’t seem to be trying to make up for it. He’s not given himself a crash course in presidenting. He’s not preparing as he goes. He doesn’t seem to think he needs to. He seems to think that having the right ideas is the same as knowing how to put those ideas into successful action.
This means he doesn’t understand what the job he’s applying for entails.
He wouldn’t be the first job applicant to make that mistake.
This, I’m pretty sure, is what Clinton was implying when she didn’t call him unqualified but did slyly call his qualifications into question. She was saying “He doesn’t understand what it means to be President and I do. He hasn’t prepared so he isn’t prepared and I have so I am.”
One of the criticisms of Clinton is that she is too much of a wonk’s wonk. She prefers to put policy ahead of principle...and people. I don’t agree but she does give that impression sometimes. Voters like Bernie because there’s nothing wonkish about him. To him, principle is policy. But as a wonk, Clinton knows her stuff and she knows when others don’t know theirs. She sees that Sanders doesn’t know the stuff he needs to know, at least not as well as he needs to know it and she’s less than impressed.
Sanders supporters have been trying to explain away his interview with the New York Daily News. His apparent inability to explain his own positions was the fault of the Daily News editors asking the wrong sorts of questions. Hostile and biased critics like Paul Krugman---especially Paul Krugman. Boy, do they hate Krugman these days!---are deliberately misinterpreting his answers. Krugman is just plain dead wrong! Bernie’s answers were fine. He was right on the merits. He was right in principle. He could have answered in more persuasive detail, if he’d wanted to, he just didn’t think it was the time or the place. Really, trust us, he knows his stuff!
But as far as I’ve seen, their defense focuses on what he said about Dodd-Frank and how he intends to use it to break up the big banks, and it wasn’t just on that subject where he failed to show he’s done his homework and it hasn’t just been in that interview where he’s failed to show that. It’s happened in debates when he’s routinely given excerpts from his stump speeches in place of detailed explanations of his own plans. His stump speeches themselves tend to be vague on the details.
Bernie is right on the merits and in principle about many things. But he doesn’t seem to think he needs to be able to explain how he’d be right in practice. Clinton has picked up on this. He questions her judgment. That’s what he meant when he called her unqualified. Her instances of poor judgment disqualifies her. But she questions his intellectual discipline and depth of thought. That’s what she meant when she implied he’s unqualified. His lack of preparation disqualifies him.
Then there’s this.
Lincoln---and this is important for Sanders supporters to note---was a party man. He was a stalwart and very active Whig, a party leader in the state legislature, in fact, and a diligent campaigner on behalf of the Whig candidates for president in 1840 and 1844, William Henry Harrison and Henry Clay. When the Whigs disintegrated, he was instrumental in helping to build the Republican Party in Illinois and nationally.
Bernie is not a party man.
It’s not just that he’s not been a good Democrat. He disdains the party even as he seeks to be its nominee. That’s a central irony of his campaign. He’s running for the party’s nomination by running against it.
I don’t understand why he doesn’t seem worried it’ll come back to haunt him if he wins.
Lincoln and Obama, who was also a party man, had histories of working well with colleagues and even political opponents to get things done. Sanders has a history of deliberately irritating colleagues and even going out of his way to make enemies of them. There’s a reason he has a problem with the superdelegates besides the game’s being rigged. The superdelegates are all party men and women who know how important it is to be able to work together in order to get things done. How Sanders plans to solve problems without help from these people is something else he doesn’t seem prepared to explain.
They’ll come around, he says, because they’ll have to.
The undeniable righteousness of Bernie’s program will leave them no choice.
An approach that’s worked for no president in the past.
In fact, I can think of only one who even tried it, probably because none of the others saw it as a viable method for solving problems.
But then Bernie’s never struck me as much of a problem-solver. That’s one of my reservations about him. He doesn’t strike Pop Mannion as a problem-solver either.
Pop has been a problem-solver all his life. Solving problems was what he did as a scientist and college professor. It’s what he did as town supervisor. This is why he’s come around on Hillary, whom he was slow to warm to. She strikes him as a fellow problem-solver. And like I just said, Bernie doesn’t strike him as a problem solver. In fact, Bernie reminds him of too many politicians he had to deal with when he was in office, Democrats and Republicans, who were very good at identifying problems but had no real ideas about how to solve them. They seemed to think that yelling about a problem was the same as offering a solution. Then when somebody like Pop went to work and solved the problem, they yelled about how it wasn’t solved in a way they liked. That’s how he sees Bernie. Someone very good at yelling about problems. Plus he thinks Bernie’s grumpy, thin-skinned, and too easily irritated, not exactly presidential traits, certainly not traits of Pop’s favorite President, Franklin Roosevelt, who, of course, was a consummate problem-solver, the perfect blend of pragmatist and idealist, and, not incidentally, a true party man.
Which brings me to this.
There’s another name on the list of Presidents who came to office with thin resumes. Jimmy Carter.
Carter was a better president than he’s given credit for, and he was one of the smartest and best men to hold the office. But he still wasn’t a very good president, because he was temperamentally unsuited for the job. He was self-righteous, self-certain, too easily irritated, thin-skinned, and, well, grumpy. And he was too willing to go it alone. He thought of himself as a problem-solver but he believed he could solve too many problems on his own and, more damaging to his own cause, he believed that the rightness and the righteousness of his proposed solutions were self-evident and people should simply accept them on his say so. This attitude didn’t win over many people he needed to work with him, including his fellow Democrats in Congress. It took a special talent to alienate the likes of Tip O’Neill and Ted Kennedy.
And that’s who Bernie reminds me of. Jimmy Carter. And that’s what disqualifies him in my mind.
Keep in mind that I think the world of Jimmy Carter. He’s a great man. Just as importantly, he’s a good one. But as much as I worry about Bernie’s lack of preparation and his seeming not to understand what it takes to be an effective president, I worry about his Carter-esque My Way or the Highway self-righteousness and self-certainty. Carter did not suffer people he judged fools gladly. Bernie seems glad to have judged someone a fool and to make sure they know it.
I just can’t bring myself to look forward to having another self-defeating sanctimonious scold in the White House.
Because it seems these things need to be said even though they should be taken for granted: I’m a party man through and through. In my mind Bernie would be qualified to be president by virtue of his being the Democratic nominee. It’s ridiculous to me to say he’ll be better than whichever of the two Right Wing demagogues the Republicans are likely to nominate. It’s like saying I prefer a walk in the park to being caught at sea in a dismasted schooner during a typhoon. It’s like saying when told I can’t have geothermal I have to “settle” for solar, “At least it’s better than setting the house on fire.”
You probably noticed I left two names out of the post till now, a pair of incumbents voters judged had qualified for second terms. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Bush is such an obvious case of someone unqualified by virtue of being unprepared and not smart enough for the job, he isn’t worth bothering with. Writing about Clinton, though, would have me doing what I’m continually advising my students not do: Don’t start fights you don’t have time or space to finish.
Here’s the transcript of Sanders’ interview with the Daily News and the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart’s analysis, 9 things Bernie Sanders should’ve known about but didn’t in that Daily News interview.
At MTV News, Bernie supporter Ezekiel Kweku thinks Bernie needs to “Inspire more. Explain less.” Of course I think there’s a problem with that advice, but you should read Kweku’s post, What Should Bernie Do Now?
Jonathan Cohn says at Huffington Post that This One Line Sums Up The Big Clinton-Sanders Policy Argument.
Mickey Hirten a former editor of the Burlington, Vermont Free Press explains The Trouble With Bernie. Echoes of this can be heard at the New York Times in Patrick Healy’s story Bernie Sanders’s Campaign Past Reveals Willingness to Play Hardball.
And as if I haven’t given you enough to read, here’s former Vermont Governor Madeleine Kunin reflecting on the time Bernie Sanders ran against her in her bid for re-election. Kunin was and is a Democrat. Back then Bernie decidedly wasn’t.
And just for the fun of it you should read the villainous self-admitted corporate whore Paul Krugman on why he hasn’t felt the Bern.
For a good sense of what Jimmy Carter was like at his best and a hit at the character flaws that contributed to his undoing I heartily recommend Lawrence Wright’s narrative history of the Camp David Summit, Thirteen Days in September: The Dramatic Story of the Struggle for Peace, available in paperback and for kindle at Amazon.