Ben Carson is riding high in polls of Republican primary voters, often placing second or third, and streets ahead of some supposed heavyweight candidates like Rick Perry or Chris Christie. Carly Fiorina is the only woman on the GOP side who looks set to run (she’s said she’ll be announcing her intentions in late April/early May), and while she doesn’t do as well in polls as Dr. Carson, she’s picking up a fair amount of media attention, particularly for her attacks on Hillary Clinton. Carson and Fiorina have one thing in common that all the other GOP candidates and prospective candidates lack – they’re private citizens who’ve never held public office.
Trust in politics – and especially in politicians – is at an all-time low. Congressional approval ratings dipped into the single-digits, and even the once-sainted Barack Obama finds himself with approval ratings stuck in the upper-30% range. There’s a sense throughout the country that what’s needed in Washington DC is real change, not Obama’s pseudo-change. So wouldn’t it seem like a great time to be Dr. Carson or Mrs Fiorina?
I’ve said before that citizens being elected to high office was exactly what the Founding Fathers of the United States intended. They would’ve hated people like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and even Jeb Bush because they form part of a political elite – something akin to an aristocracy. It was never the intention of people like Jefferson and Franklin that there should be a permanent political class in the United States, keeping power for itself. The Presidency, like other positions in elected office, was something intended to be seen as a brief interlude of public service during a successful career in some other field. But, as always, the intentions and the theory don’t always live up to the practise.
Since George Washington left the Presidency in 1797, only three men have been elected President with no prior experience in government – Zachary Taylor (elected in 1848), Ulysses S. Grant (elected in 1868), and Dwight D. Eisenhower (elected in 1952). In addition, only two other Presidents were elected having never before held elected office, but having held previous appointed positions in government – William Howard Taft (elected in 1908), and Herbert Hoover (elected in 1928). The first three, Taylor, Grant, and Eisenhower, were all distinguished military generals. So the bar for moving directly from private life to the White House is not exactly low when you look at the history of the Presidency.
There’s a reason for this. The Presidency is an impossibly difficult job, and the electorate wants to know that the person they are appointing to arguably the world’s toughest job is going to be capable of doing it once the election’s over. And the best way to tell if someone’s capable of doing a job is to look at their experience. Someone who’s led a state as Governor, served as a Senator representing their state in Washington, or even served in a Presidential cabinet, has a track record that they can point to and spin out to say that they’ve got what it takes to govern the country and take the difficult decisions that come with the nation’s top job. It’s not difficult for the average voter to imagine Governors, Senators, and even Congressmen ascending to the Presidency. It’s far more difficult for a doctor or corporate CEO to make a case that their experience outside of public office qualifies them to be President.
Name recognition can also play a role. The average citizen who watches a daily news broadcast, picks up a newspaper, or even catches up on current events on the Internet tends to be aware – if not on a concious level – of the names of important Senators, Governors, Congressmen, and cabinet secretaries. If you asked the average citizen to name one of the Senators from Florida, for example, they might draw a blank. But ask them if they know the name Marco Rubio, and you’ll get an answer like “oh, I’ve heard of him”. The people taken most seriously in the Presidential race tend to have that base of name recognition nationally in advance of the election cycle. Dr Carson has become a known figure in the conservative movement, but not in the country at large. Carly Fiorina may be known in her native California from her unsuccessful 2010 Senate bid, but she’s got a long way to go to achieve the kind of national standing that Presidential candidates need.
There’s another factor which is arguably more relevant in 2016 than it might’ve been in previous years, and that’s the current President. Obama was an inexperienced first-term Senator when he was elected on the back of a campaign big on history and charisma but without any meaningful policy ideas. Obama, even by the standards of many Democrats, has been a singularly unsuccessful President, and his poll numbers reflect that. As the Democrats get ready to run Hillary Clinton, the political heavyweight with a quarter of a century of experience in some form or other, there’s a case to be made that that decision reflects a desire to see an experienced leader in the White House, not another untested and unproven newcomer. In other words, a Rick Perry, Chris Christie, or Jeb Bush rather than a Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, or Carly Fiorina. The national mood may simply mean that the politically inexperienced aren’t going to be successful this time around. And you can thank Obama for that.
But doesn’t that seem silly when trust in politicians is at an all-time low? After all, on the one hand we’re saying that people are desperate to see real and meaningful change in Washington DC, but on the other we’re saying that they seem prepared to only trust someone experienced to take the helm after the 2016 election. So how do we reconcile that? And what does it mean for prospective 2016 Presidential candidates? I would argue that it’s simple – what people want is a proven leader from outside of the Washington DC machine – in short, a Governor. Governors have demonstrable executive and leadership experience, and they also come from outside the beltway so they’re not quite so tainted in the popular imagination as long-serving Senators and Congressmen. It’s been said many times before, but the best candidate for the GOP to run this time around is a Governor. It’s that simple.
So what does that mean for Dr Carson and Mrs Fiorina? Firstly, we’ve got to remember that they’re different candidates with different reasons for getting into the race, so we can’t really treat them as two peas in a pod. There are similarities, but there are also some differences, and those differences will effect what, if anything, their 2016 campaigns can achieve.
We’ll start with Ben Carson. I would argue that Dr Carson has rather bought into his own hype over the past year or so. What began as a campaign to try to draft him quickly became his own campaign, and it could be that when hundreds and thousands of people start telling you that you’d make a good President, you start to believe it yourself. Dr Carson was very successful in his career as a neurosurgeon, there can be no doubt about that, but the only reason he was even considered was because he once said, in front of an annoyed-looking President, that Obamacare and big government weren’t good. Hardly a basis for a Presidential campaign when you put it like that. But as time went by and more and more people jumped on the Carson bandwagon – driven, in part, by the desire to elect a true political outsider – Carson himself started to buy into the campaign rhetoric.
By contrast, Carly Fiorina, many have suggested, is getting into the race because she’s hoping to get the Vice Presidential nomination. With few other women on the GOP side having the standing to make a Presidential run, Mrs Fiorina stands out from the pack, adds diversity to the field, and may help negate the gender factor which will be such a big deal in the Clinton campaign. If the GOP nominates a man, as they almost certainly will based on current polling, then having a woman as the VP nominee would be politically sensible, and by the end of the primaries, Mrs Fiorina would’ve sufficiently boosted her own name recognition and national standing to be a serious VP contender. It makes sense, because there aren’t many women on the GOP side (or the Democratic side for that matter) with the national standing necessary to be the party’s VP nominee. Sarah Palin almost certainly wouldn’t be picked for that position again. Michele Bachmann is a possibility, as is Nikki Haley of South Carolina. But who else is there? Condoleezza Rice has said time and again she’s happy where she is. Susan Collins, the Senator from Maine, is another possibility, but there aren’t many women available for the GOP to pick. And if Sarah Palin doesn’t run at all this time, it could be that Carly Fiorina will be the only woman to have gone through the primary process; the only woman to be battle-tested in this election cycle. My current inclination is that she’s running for the VP slot rather than the top job. I could be wrong, but that’s my opinion right now.
So Ben Carson really wants to be President. He’s started to believe his own campaign rhetoric, and he’s convinced himself that he can do the top job. Unfortunately, he will be disappointed. He’s riding high in the polls right now, but it won’t last. He’ll start taking flak from the politically experienced in his own party, and ultimately the GOP will look elsewhere for their nominee. It wouldn’t really play well in the general election anyway, nominating someone whose sole claim to fame, the Democrats would argue, is that he once said that he didn’t like Obamacare in front of Obama.
Carly Fiorina wants to be President too, but maybe not in 2016. She’s gunning for the VP slot, and there’s a good chance she’ll get it regardless of who comes out on top after the primaries. If Hillary Clinton is the Democrats’ nominee, the Republican Party will be looking for some way to counter Mrs Clinton’s gender advantage, as well as a way to go after her without appearing sexist. Mrs Fiorina has already been attacking Clinton’s record and lack of accomplishments. She’d be a good VP choice for the Republicans, especially after she’s been toughened up in the primaries.
But back to the original point – could either Ben Carson or Carly Fiorina bypass the traditional political process and go directly from private life to the Presidency? For all kinds of reasons, the answer is almost certainly “no”. It’s a nice idea, one in line with the founding principles of the United States, even, but in 2016 it just doesn’t seem practical. After years of struggling with a President many consider to be an amateur on the world stage, and facing off against Hillary Clinton, who will base her campaign around her decades of experience, the Republican Party just doesn’t look set to offer its nomination to someone so inexperienced.