You want to pick the perfect one but are not sure which that is. The advertising for each product is so enticing and reassuring. The packaging is all so polished. Yet, you have been fooled in the past and suffered long periods of buyer’s remorse. Some have been touted as durable and tough, others promoted as thoroughly tested, and others guaranteed to be different from anything you had previously. Right now, you are temped to be skeptical and about ready to give up on the whole process. However, you know you are going to end up with a new one no matter what you do (or not do). You might as well be a part of the transaction so that your opinion may be heard (even if your choice is not selected). So, being a “smart” consumer, you have decided to research your options before making your final selection. You will make the right choice this time. You know it!
The above description is familiar for Americans during the holiday buying season we are experiencing. It is the time of buying a gift for others or yourself at a time when the world of commerce is eager to have your money. However, in this History Rhyme we are not talking about buying a new toy, car, or electronic gadget. Instead, it is the process that many politically-minded Americans are beginning which will culminate in November 2016 with the selection of the 45th President of the United States. In order to help in this process, this month’s blog will look at the political careers of a few of the top possible candidates to see what level of experience they have, look at the per-presidential political careers of some of our past presidents, and see what we might gain from the past to help us in the upcoming future.
How can we know if the next person we elect will be a good choice? Each candidate will promise that they will do great things when elected. Whether or not they can or will fulfill these promises will remain unknown until after the election. The resume; however, is different. It shows what level of responsibility in governance each candidate had. Some events would seem especially relevant to the job of President, who is both the CEO of this great “corporation” and the one chiefly responsible for America’s interactions with other nations. As preparation for those presidential responsibilities, not all political roles are equally valuable. A state legislator has neither an executive component nor is intimately familiar with the interactions of the federal government with the rest of the world. The same can be said of time in the United States House of Representative. On the other hand, the role of governor does offer executive experience and that of United States Senator does involve a certain amount of international involvement (through the confirmation of our chief diplomats and in the approval of treaties). As of December 2014, no significant national figure has officially announced that they are a candidate. Yet, it is easy to discern who are the main contends for the Democratic and Republican nominations. Let us then look at the political resumes of these men and women.
The three most likely candidates for the Democratic nomination are former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. Secretary Clinton has held two prominent elected or appointed political positions. She was the Senator from New York for eight years (2001-2009) and United States Secretary of State for four years (2009-2013). Both of these positions offered her the foreign policy exposure that a president needs. Yet, it is her time as First Lady (1993-2001) which offered the most unique perspective on how the presidency works. It is a qualification that no other likely (or even marginally likely) candidate will possess in the upcoming election. Although Vice President Biden cannot say that he has lived in the White House, his six years (2009 to present) as Barack Obama’s vice president is the next best thing, It has given him access to national security briefings, allowed him to interact with world leaders, and has given him the opportunity to remain in the national spotlight. Prior to 2009, he was the Senator from Delaware for thirty-six years. During that time, he was the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee for eight years (1987-1995) and of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for nearly four years (2001-2003 and 2007-2009). None of the other candidates can claim such an extensive resume in the Senate. Senator Warren has the least noteworthy resume of these three Democrats. She has been a senator since 2013. Prior to that, she was the Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law at Harvard (starting in 1995). In addition, she has been appointed to two congressional panels.
On the Republican side of the presidential contest, there appears to be an abundance of possible candidates. For the sake of brevity, we will only look at the three that are receiving most of the attention from the political pundits: Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Senator Cruz has a political resume that is somewhat similar to that of Elizabeth Warren. He has only been in the Senate since 2013, was an adjunct professor of law at the University of Texas (2004-09), and has been appointed to roles within the government. In Cruz’s case, these tasks (in the period 2001-2003) were director of the Office of Policy Planning at the Federal Trade Commission, and Associate Deputy Attorney General. Unlike Warren, he was a law clerk for Chief Justice William Rehnquist and also held a state level position for five years (2003-08) as Texas’ Solicitor General. Senator Paul, son of frequent presidential candidate Ron Paul, has the smallest political resume of the three Republicans. He has been a senator since 2011, and prior to that, was an ophthalmologist and founder of Kentucky Taxpayers United. Governor Bush, second son of President George H. W. Bush and younger brother of President George W. Bush, is the only candidate with any elected executive experience coming from his eight years (1999-2007) as Governor of Florida. Prior to that, he was Florida’s Secretary of Commerce for two years (1986-88).
Looking at the various candidates described above, we see a variety of political experience and roles. Which of these would make the best president? Is executive experience the most helpful? If so, then Jeb Bush is the only possible candidate. Is foreign relations experience helpful? If so, then either Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden would be the smart choice. Then again, is time in power really that helpful in making a good president. In these times when public approval for Congress is very low, the appeal of an outsider is strong. For such voters, the relatively inexperienced Senators from Texas, Kentucky, or Massachusetts may be just what they crave. Since all of this is to be determined in the future, we really do not know what will be the right answer. As is the custom of the History Rhyme, we will now look into the history of past presidents to see if their political biographies are helpful in making the right choice in 2016.
In 2012, the website electoral-vote.com compiled data on the political resumes of past presidents in order to answer this question – How Good Are Experienced Presidents? They gathered date from twelve prominent presidential ranking polls to discern an average ranking (they call it a “consensus” ranking) for each president, tabulated the types and amount of political experience these men had, and presented the data in the form of a chart entitled “Greatness as a Function of Years of Experience.” The political roles included in the study are Vice President, Governor, Senator, Congressman, state legislator, and cabinet member. The results they obtained are perhaps surprising but are definitely interesting. The five men who had the most prior political service were James Buchanan (30.25 years), Lyndon Johnson (27 years), Gerald Ford (25.75 years), George Washington (24.5 years), and James Garfield (23 years). These five men are all over the best president rankings. Washington is the third best on the consensus ranking but is first in several individual rankings. Buchanan, despite all of his time in a wide variety of political positions (as Senator, Representative, legislator, and cabinet member), is the second worst in the consensus ranking.
The five men who had the least prior political experience were Chester Arthur (1.5 years – of which one was as a Civil War general), Grover Cleveland (2 years), Woodrow Wilson (2 years), Theodore Roosevelt (4.5 years), and Benjamin Harrison (6 years). These five men are also spread out on the “best” list with Roosevelt and Wilson ranked in the top ten (#5 and #6 respectively) and Arthur and Harrison in the bottom half (#26 and #30 respectively). What is even more interesting that man who is always included in the top three of any presidential ranking, Franklin Roosevelt, is the seventh least experienced president. If you move to the seventeenth and eighteenth least experienced presidents, you end up with the far extremes of the consensus rankings. Abraham Lincoln (10 years) is at the top of the best list while Warren Harding (10.5 years) is at the bottom.
Since total years of experience do not appear to be a good indicator of presidential success, we must look more closely at the data to see if any other trends emerge. We find that it is not the time that matters but the kind of work that appears to give us a better chance of predicting success. Six of the men in the top ten were state governors. Only two served in the Senate and only three in the House of Representatives. Conversely, six of the men in the bottom ten served in the Senate, six in the House, but only two of the bottom ten had been a state governor.
What do the past presidential resumes tell us that will be relevant in the upcoming 2016 contest? Historical data would suggest that familiarity with being the “CEO” of a state government is quite helpful in giving some guidance for being the “CEO” of the United States. It also appears that time in Congress is not as helpful even though these men were in the national spotlight, knew how things worked in Washington, and had some experience dealing with America’s relations with the outside world. If these past trends hold true for the future, it appears that the person with the best hope of being a great president would be Jeb Bush. Of course, elections are not often decided by an analysis of past data. Also, as they say in the radio commercials trying to get people to invest in gold, “past performance is no guarantee of future success.” If I were Jeb Bush, I would emphasize the past trends. If I were any other candidate, I would discount the top ten trend and try to convince the American people that this time it will be different.
It will be interesting to see in the next two years what happens and who is able to convince the most Americans to give them his or her vote. The History Rhyme will be there to help use the past to gain perspective on the developments that will come. In the meantime, have fun shopping!